LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The Denver Nuggets, who are down 2-1 in the Western Conference finals, are a loss away from having the Los Angeles Lakers right where they want them. A resilient team that has made history by overcoming a 3-1 series lead twice in the same postseason cannot be taken lightly.
Some thought the Nuggets would lay down in the aftermath of Anthony Davis’ game-winning triple in Game 2.
But that certainly isn’t the case.
The Lakers were lackluster for much of the game and played with the intensity and sense of urgency of a late-November regular-season contest. That leisurely attitude led to a 20-point fourth-quarter deficit, which is the last thing you want against a sturdy opponent.
“First three quarters, they were more physical than us,” Lakers star Anthony Davis said. “They played with more desperation. They played harder. They were getting 50/50 basketballs. They were the aggressors and it showed in the first three. And at the end of fourth quarter, we started playing our style of basketball, cut it to three, and had a chance to take the lead. But when you're down 20 and you're trying to battle back, everything has to go right. Kind of have to have a perfect storm. We had opportunities, and then they made plays at the end. We just didn't come out very aggressive and physical.”
Davis delivered 27 points, but to his point regarding physicality, he grabbed just two rebounds in 42 minutes, with his first coming with 4:56 left in the contest. LeBron James had 30 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel went to a zone in the fourth quarter and his team played with desperation, trimming the margin to three with 5:26 left. But the Lakers never got any closer.
“I give credit where credit is due, though,” James said. “Denver came in and played exceptionally well. They played better than us, more aggressive than us through three quarters, 36 minutes, but you know, we've got into the penalty in the third quarter with, like, nine-and-a-half minutes to go and we had some turnovers that led to some easy buckets for them. We had 16 turnovers for 25 points and put them to the line 29 times. It's not going to be winning ingredients for us if we continue to do that and we knew that, even after Game 2, we talked about that, trying to assure that. Got to be better than that in Game 4.”
Murray made huge plays down the stretch, finishing with 28 points and a game-high 12 assists.
The Nuggets are a hard-nosed team and usually absent of any on-court shenanigans. Murray hit a deep three over Davis with 53 second remaining to put the Nuggets up 12. Having just nailed the dagger, the young guard shimmied his way back on defense.
That’s as close as you’ll get to any antics from the Nuggets.
Dwight Howard continued to try to get under the skin of Nikola Jokic, but his antics could be causing him to lose focus at times. Throughout this series, he has antagonized Jokic with juvenile taunts and has gone out of his way to invade the star’s space before play has even resumed.
Five minutes into the second quarter, Howard had just picked up a technical foul for tossing the ball in the air out of frustration after a foul was called on him. And unbeknownst to the viewing public, seconds later, he was nearly tossed from the game.
Jerami Grant, who finished with 26 points, was at the free-throw line midway in the second period, and Howard uttered an obscene remark in the direction of the officials. It was apparently so off-putting that official Marc Davis shouted, “Hey, cut that out now! Are you serious? I’ve heard that twice now. Twice. Cut it out now!”
Howard got off with a stern warning, but he was visibly irritated.
Howard’s energy in the second quarter and his ability to match up physically with Jokic has been a bright spot for the Lakers. Losing him at that juncture would have completely disrupted Vogel’s substitution pattern.
Rajon Rondo checked in after Grant’s first free throw. Howard still wasn’t totally absorbed in the game at this point.
Howard was lined up around the key for rebounding position next to 6-foot-2 Monte Morris, while 6-foot-10 rookie Michael Porter Jr. lined up on the opposite side sandwiched by two Lakers guards: Alex Caruso and Rondo.
Right before Grant was given the ball for his second free throw, Rondo spiritedly clapped at Howard to get his attention and instructed him to switch with Caruso so that Porter Jr. wouldn’t have an easy rebounding advantage should Grant miss the free throw. Minor mistakes like that at the wrong time could be the difference between winning and losing.
Rondo is constantly shadowing Howard and is in his ear about toning down some of his antics. Howard's newly discovered enforcer role has been effective, but he’ll have to temper it and remain focused.
The Nuggets aren’t a team to sleep on. They just play ball and they’ve proven that they deserve respect for the full 48 minutes. The Lakers have been warned. Will they take heed?
“We can't give this team nothing easy,” Davis said. “It's a team that you have to put them away. You can't just expect them to go away.”
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