Lakers fade again in Game 3 loss to Denver, putting their season in peril


It’s a colossal climb the Lakers are on, trouble lurking at every step.

One bad dribble, and Denver runs the other direction, creating an open three. One missed assignment, and Aaron Gordon cuts baseline for a dunk. One whiffed box-out and the Nuggets get a second, and sometimes, a third chance.

One missed shot, and the margins get tighter, the chances get smaller, the ending gets closer.

One more tough night and the season will be done.

Read more: NBA disagrees with LeBron James and Lakers, supports calls made late in Game 2 loss

Boos started to fill Arena by the fourth quarter of Game 3 on Thursday, this time coming after a mistake on a screen led to an open Denver dunk. Reality had set in — one that probably should’ve been realized sooner.

The fact that the Lakers have been close to beating the Nuggets in the last 11 games has been no consolation. In fact, it probably makes it worse.

The climb they face has been too steep, too slippery and, again, too hard for this team to conquer.

Denver, like it always seems to do, was there to gleefully capitalize on every Lakers mistake, every execution error. The Nuggets' 112-105 win, even more so than their previous wins in the series, felt like relatively light work, with the Lakers dispatched relatively early in the second half.

Lakers forward Anthony Davis, right, tries to block a shot by Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic.
Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) tries to block a shot by Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic in the first quarter Thursday. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The Lakers now trail Denver 3-0 in the best-of-seven playoff series — no team in NBA history has ever come back from that deficit.

“Our focus and our [mentality] right now is just trying to get one. Trying to get a game and then go from there,” Anthony Davis said. “Try to get a game on Saturday, Game 4. And go from there. However many straight [we lost], we can’t focus on that. Our focus is trying to [get] better from tonight, learn from our mistakes and try to get a win on Saturday. We can’t do anything about it. It’s in the past.”

The past, though, keeps showing up and the Lakers are playing in ways like it’s absolutely mattered — the team trying to climb out of a hole that started to be dug last season when Denver began its now 11-game winning streak against them.

The Nuggets outscored the Lakers by 12 in the third quarter, the game logs looking like they could’ve been Xeroxed from any of the previous 11 meetings between the teams.

In the series, Denver has been 31 points better in the third quarter. They’ve outscored the Lakers by 20 total points in the series.

“Our third quarter's been atrocious,” Austin Reaves said.

The second-half problems — Denver has outscored the Lakers by 42 after halftime — have been a weapon used to criticize coach Darvin Ham and the Lakers’ inability to find the right adjustments.

But there was no adjusting to be done Thursday other than an easy one to spot — play better.

Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon finger rolls his shot to score over Lakers forward LeBron James in the fourth quarter.

“I think Denver's just beating us, to be honest,” Reaves said. “You can talk about adjustments, you can talk about this and that, but at the end of the day, we got to go put our best foot forward in basketball games ... you got to man up and go win games."

Still, in addition to the late-game boos, some fans chanted “Fire Darvin Ham” as the Lakers stumbled in the fourth, the frustration extending beyond the benches into the stands.

Thursday wasn’t even Nikola Jokic’s night to rip the heart out of the Lakers. Foul trouble zapped some of his aggressiveness (his “off” night yielded 24 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists). And the Lakers again defended Jamal Murray fairly well, holding him to 22 points on eight-of-21 shooting.

But the Lakers lost on every other margin, Gordon owning the glass and Michael Porter Jr. hitting big shot after big shot.

The Lakers, like they have throughout the series, won the first minutes by playing with more energy, more pace and more force. They scored the first eight points — six coming on consecutive dunks — to prove that Murray’s winning shot on a buzzer-beater Monday hadn’t done permanent damage.

LeBron James and Anthony Davis led the push — the Lakers’ stars looking unstoppable as they attacked the Nuggets' interior defense.

But just like in their series opener, the Lakers' outside shots kept missing.

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Rui Hachimura’s corner three with 5:24 left in the first quarter was the only Lakers basket from three until Taurean Prince hit a corner three with eight minutes left in the game.

By then, the Lakers were down double figures and more than 33 minutes of game time had vanished.

D’Angelo Russell struggled again, going scoreless on 0-for-seven shooting in his 24 minutes.

Russell, who projected confidence after shooting six-for-20 in Game 1, declined to speak to the media Thursday.

“It's unfortunate, man,” Ham said. “He had some good looks that he just didn't knock down. It's as simple as that. Similar to Game 1. He was able to bounce back in Game 2 and I expect him to bounce back in Game 4.”

Davis and James combined for 59 points on 60.4% shooting. The rest of the team made only 38.3%, with that number dropping to 30% if you remove Reaves and his eight-for-17 game.

The Lakers, again, looked like a team cracking under Denver’s pressure, the rims tightening and the ball squirting loose more and more as the stakes grew higher.

“This is the postseason. We've been — me and this guy have been playing together for six years. We've been to the mountaintop,” James said as he sat next to Davis after the game. “We've been close to the mountaintop. We've played a lot of games. We know what it takes to win. We know what it takes to win a championship and how damn-near perfect you gotta be. That's not like something that's so crazy to obtain. I've been a part of it four times where you have to have the most perfect basketball to win.”

This team hasn’t gotten close enough to perfect for the Lakers to look like a group relying more on hope than anything else.

Too many things that “can’t happen” against the Nuggets continued to happen against the Nuggets, like Russell’s struggles.

Reaves missed layups, his legs heavy from chasing Murray. Hachimura, after getting in the action early, completely faded on offense as he tried to limit Gordon and Jokic.

And Russell, a key to the Lakers’ season, spent the final minutes on the bench as Ham searched for anything from someone else.

Again, there was nothing to be found, a climb so dizzying and so treacherous, the ending is all but assured.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.