ORLANDO, Fla. -- They didn’t wait until they were in dire straights, on the brink of elimination and facing expulsion from the NBA bubble.
Not this time.
After fighting off elimination six times in this postseason, the Denver Nuggets opted for an earlier response in the Western Conference finals.
The bubble’s most resilient team rebounded from Sunday’s soul-crushing Game 2 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers for an impressive 114-106 Game 3 win Tuesday night at AdventHealth Arena, foiling any notion that this series would end in a sweep.
There was some drama, of course, but nothing like that Anthony Davis buzzer-beating 3-pointer Sunday night. This is the Nuggets we’re talking about. Everything about their bubble experience has been filled with in-game dramatics, including Mike Malone’s team being the first in NBA playoff history to rebound from 3-1 deficits to advance multiple times in the same postseason.
Jamal Murray clearly does. He had to rescue the Nuggets Tuesday night to secure the win. A 97-77 lead dwindled to 101-98 in the final minutes. The Lakers chewing into that lead behind a furious push by LeBron James, who finished with a 30-point, 10-rebound, 11-assist triple-double.
But with the game on the line, Murray kicked it into overdrive.
He nailed a 3-pointer with 2:16 to play that pushed a four-point lead back to seven. And closed the door on the Lakers’ rally with another deep 3-pointer with 54 seconds to play to back to double digits.
“I think they just kind of picked up their aggressiveness,” Murray said. “I didn't think I had a good game in total, to be honest with you. I think I didn't really get everybody organized. Had too many turnovers. Too many live-ball turnovers that led to easy two points. It happened a second time. I thought there were stints in the game where I just could have been a lot better. I can't have those, like I said, breakdowns for them to come back into the game. Even when they're playing good defense, I just got to play better. Got to take care of the ball, be shot ready like we all were today, we'll be fine. I got to have a better game if we want to win.”
A team that hasn’t been through what Murray and the Nuggets have the past two seasons might have folded and gone back to their hotel down 3-0.
But not these Nuggets.
They’ve shown that they are just built different. They don’t recoil at the first sign of pressure. They don’t crumble when things get tight, the way the game did in the fourth quarter.
“The clock starts moving really slow, especially when you have LeBron putting his head down and driving, and Anthony Davis out there,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “But we know there's a lot of time left. No lead is safe, especially against a team like that. I'm not sure what they cut it to, whether it's one or three, but it got to be really close. That's when I was proud that we gave up our lead, but we didn't collapse. We withstood their run, their punch. We had the poise to get ourselves out of it. That's the sign of a team that's been in a lot of close games and has won a lot of close games in the last three, four years.”
How about the last three or four weeks?
They’ve done it with a devastating dose of Murray (28 points, 12 assists) and All-NBA center Nikola Jokic (22 points, 12 rebounds) and whomever else spikes from a deep supporting cast on a given night.
It was Jerami Grant in Game 3. The veteran forward scored a playoff career-high 26 points and was a factor on both ends, guarding James and Davis.
“Oh, we'd be down 3-0, that's the bottom line,” Malone said when asked where the Nuggets would be right now without Grant’s monster night. “Jerami was spectacular. Twenty-six points, got to the foul line 12 times, made 10. Had really good defensive possessions guarding some of the best players in the world. “We knew going in what we were going to get every night from Nikola, Jamal. You always wonder who is going to step up and be that third scorer. For us tonight obviously Jerami came through in a big, big way at both ends of the floor. Proud of Jerami. Great to see him have some success offensively because he's been working so hard at it. His hard work paid off tonight.”
For some reason we love this bubble. I can't explain that, but this team loves the bubble
The Nuggets know they let Game 2 slip away. They fought back, much like the Lakers did using a zone defense in the fourth quarter, but got burned on that Davis buzzer-beater.
The Lakers didn’t get close enough to rekindle that magic Tuesday night.
“Denver came in and played exceptionally well,” James said. “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 Game 4.”
The Nuggets would be wise to save the rest-and-recovery blueprint Malone utilized during Game 3.
“(Monday) when we met and we watched the film, I started off by watching the last play of the game," Malone said. “Get the elephant in the room out of the way. Let's talk about the play, what happened. When we're in this situation again, let's learn from it. Yes, we all take ownership. Let's learn from it.
“After that, my goal was when we got done with that film, they saw so many positive clips of us doing the right things, which put us in a position to win. Now we had to do that for more than just a second half. We had to do it for four quarters. Tonight we did it at a high level for three. The fourth quarter we'll work on our zone offense tomorrow and taking care of the basketball. But very resilient group. I think this group has proven that.”
With his team operating at its confident best, they looked every bit the Lakers’ equal. The same way they found another level against the heavily-favored Clippers in the previous round, they’ll need to find and sustain that level to continually trade blows with the Lakers the way they did to win Game 3.
Malone, of course, never doubted his resilient crew.
“Yeah, I had no doubt that we were going to show up tonight,” he said. “The reason I didn't have any doubt is because we won six straight elimination games. Everybody always has us packing our bags and leaving, but we're not ready to go. For some reason we love this bubble. I can't explain that, but this team loves the bubble.”
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