Lakers on edge of precipice after Game 3 loss to Nuggets
The bad ol’ days for this Lakers season are far behind them, rendered irrelevant first with a series of trades to remake the Lakers on the fly and secondly with wins against the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
The last-second three from Indiana, the blown call in Boston, the missed free throws in Philadelphia, the load management no-shows and the no-spacing nightmares all erased by a surge of competence that put them here, Saturday night, hosting a game in the Western Conference finals.
But even though those moments are forgotten, the scars from them are still here, visible in the heavy legs, the heaving chests and the flat jump shots and the rimmed-out free throws.
They’ve climbed to get to these Western Conference finals, a trip that started with a sprint through the final 25 games of the season to worm their way into the postseason.
Now facing their conference’s best team, the past has come to collect.
It wasn’t that they weren’t willing to fight. They had repeated chances to give up, to call it and move on to the unspoken fate that awaits all NBA teams that trail 3-0.
But Saturday, with the season essentially on the line, the Lakers simply couldn’t climb anymore.
Despite coming back to lead in the fourth quarter, the Lakers got flattened by another Denver run that put their season on the brink of finality, the Nuggets winning 119-108.
The Lakers will try to avoid elimination Monday at Crypto.com Arena. No team in NBA history has ever come back from being down 3-0 in a series.
“Difficult but not impossible,” coach Darvin Ham said of the Lakers’ situation.
Anthony Davis had 28 points and 18 rebounds, LeBron James had 23 points and 12 assists and Austin Reaves added 23 points. Jamal Murray had 37 points for Denver and Nikola Jokic added 24.
“It’s not over,” Davis said.
It’ll take unprecedented history, though, to keep this going.
After the Lakers got outscored by nine in the fourth, the team is staring at a set of problems they haven’t been able to solve in any meaningful way for more than moments.
When the Lakers have guarded Murray, Jokic has hurt them. When they’ve managed to slow both, former Laker Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr. or Bruce Brown have delivered the dagger.
“I think they are just… they are big. They are very physical. They are fast,” Rui Hachimura said. “So you know, those are things hard on us right now. We have just got to try and win the next game.”
Hachimura scored 13 off the bench, but the Lakers’ other key role players were nowhere near effective enough.
Dennis Schroder scored only five points as he tried to hound Murray. Jarred Vanderbilt had only two points and for the third straight game D’Angelo Russell struggled, making only one shot in eight attempts.
“All good looks. All good looks. He just has to remain aggressive,” Ham said of Russell. “All good looks.”
They need to start falling because the Lakers’ tank looks empty.
“This chase is heavy,” Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea narrated over a hype video that played with 3:48 left. No one knew it better than the Lakers, who spent all season chasing only to have to do it again in Game 3.
Needing a fast start, the Lakers stumbled from the tip. By the time the last of the courtside celebrities filled into their seats, they were down 10, Murray picking up right where he last left off.
After torching the Lakers for 23 points in the decisive fourth quarter of Game 2, Murray scored 17 points in the first Saturday, hitting eight of his first 10 shots to immediately send the Lakers into scramble mode.
“He got off scorching,” Ham said.
Jokic, the two-time MVP, didn’t even make a basket until four minutes into the second quarter, but by then, the Lakers were already moving full speed to try and recover.
The Lakers trailed by as many as 14 in the first half before they began to chip away. Reaves and Davis carried the offense while the Lakers defense turned the faucet off on everyone but Murray, who scored 30 in the first half.
“Once he gets going,” James said. “It’s hard to turn him off.”
The Lakers fought back to tie the game in the third quarter and inched ahead to lead by one on three different occasions, with Denver answering loudest after the Lakers went up 94-93.
The Nuggets, who turned a three-point deficit into a 12-point lead in Game 2, hit the Lakers with a 13-0 run in the fourth Saturday to leave the Lakers behind.
“That was the game,” James said.
It might be the series. It might be the season.
Maybe, the Lakers are primed for history — who better than a 13th-place team that spent most of the season staring up at .500 clinging to the slim hope of the postseason.
“Climbing uphill basically all season to get to this point, and it’s the same thing here,” Davis said. “You know, obviously it’s a steeper climb being down 0-3. But we are going to keep taking it one game at a time and try to get better and come out with a win on Monday.”
They’ll try and recover Sunday — “refill their cups” as Ham has said throughout the season. After wins, after losses, the Lakers have always managed to do it. They did it through trades, through losing.
So belief is still there.
“I mean, it should be. I hope so,” James said. “I can’t speak for the guys right now because I don’t know what’s going on through all their minds right now. But I still do.”
The past has to be the place where it comes from. Because from what the Lakers and James have seen through three games this series, there’s not much hope here.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.