2023 Playoffs: West Final | Nuggets vs. Lakers

5 takeaways from Nuggets' Game 3 victory over Lakers

Nikola Jokic gets plenty of help, Jamal Murray continues to steal the spotlight and L.A. has a D'Angelo Russell problem.

In his last two games, Jamal Murray is averaging 37 points, 8.5 rebounds, three steals and has made 11 3-pointers.

LOS ANGELES — If history is our guide and remains unrelenting and inflexible, then it’s not a matter of if the Nuggets will be moving onto the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history, it’s a matter of when.

The final shove of the Lakers off the 2022-23 ledge could arrive courtesy of a sweep Monday (8:30 ET, ESPN), or if the basketball gods have a heart — and the Lakers have a pulse — then it might take another game or two. In any event, it’s a 3-0 series lead for the Nuggets after their 119-108 victory Saturday and you don’t need yet another reminder that nobody has blown an advantage that big.

What was especially comforting for the Nuggets is how they captured Game 3 with, by his standards, a mild effort from Nikola Jokic. He was mainly silent through three quarters, dogged by fouls and decent L.A. defense, yet Denver managed to win anyway, rare for a team so dependent on the multiple skills of their two-time Kia NBA MVP center.

The Nuggets take a 3-0 series lead with a commanding victory in L.A. and they've pushed the Lakers to the brink of elimination after a deep run.

There was plenty from Jamal Murray (30 of his 37 points in the first half) and enough from a variety of others to break away from the Lakers and breeze down the stretch. Eddie Murphy beat the rush by leaving his courtside seat with four minutes left, and the crowd at Crypto.com Arena took a hint, following him out the door moments later.

And just like that, a Laker team that spent much of the regular season shoveling out of a mess of their making, find themselves covered in it all over again. Remember when Lakers coach Darvin Ham said “we’ll be OK, trust me” after Game 1? Well, they’re not.

The Nuggets are the No. 1 seed in the West for a reason, as they constantly love to point that out in case anyone forgot.

Here are five takeaways from Denver’s Game 3 victory, its commanding lead in the best-of-seven, and the plunging plight of the Lakers:

1. Finally, the help carries Joker

This was, by far, the most impressive Everyone Else has been in a game this season for the Nuggets. Keep in mind that Jokic is the center of the Nuggets’ universe and when he’s either on the bench or in a rare funk, bad things happen to the Nuggets. The Nuggets were the most efficient team in the league with him on the floor and were among the worst when he wasn’t.

But for one night — and it couldn’t come on a more important night, given the stakes — Denver not only survived without much from Jokic, who missed a triple-double for the first time in five games, but thrived. It started when Jamal Murray couldn’t miss a first-half shot, and then others chimed in. Bruce Brown, Michael Porter Jr., Jeff Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope all hit timely shots or made defensive plays that prevented the Lakers from taking advantage of the situation.

Jokic had nine points, six assists and four rebounds through three quarters and dealt with foul trouble; he got his fourth with seven minutes left in the third and sat. And yet, L.A. could only manage a 1-point lead before the Nuggets snatched momentum back for good with a 13-0 run in the fourth.

“It’s not about one guy,” said Murray. “We have a deep team and everyone’s ready to contribute.”

Now, for the bigger question: Was this just an exception by the Nuggets on an exceptional night? That depends on whether Jokic has another lapse. And that might not happen again in this series or, if the Nuggets advance as expected, at all in the NBA Finals. This was probably his one stinker for the postseason. He’s been that good, he is that good. And the Lakers missed an opportunity.

2. Jamal Murray a menace

It’s all but assured that Jokic will capture the Magic Johnson Award for most outstanding player in the West playoffs. But Murray, if nothing else, is leaving quite the impression as someone who must be considered among the top performers in this postseason as well. His level of play over the last two games is the main reason the Nuggets are up 3-0. And the Lakers simply have no answer for him.

Well, they finally cracked the Murray Code in the second half, but only after he torched them for 30 points in the first. In that first half, Murray dropped buckets of all varieties, a continuation of his 37-point Game 2. He’s now averaging 31 in this series on 52% shooting, 45% from deep.

LeBron James sent postgame flowers to the visiting locker room, saying this: “Once he gets going, it’s hard to turn him off, a guy that has that type of rhythm. Jamal’s one of those guys who can run off 20 in a quarter or 30 in a half. He can score at all three levels in the game, in the paint, free-throw line or 3-point line. You tip your hat. He’s a hell of a player.”

Jamal Murray scores 17 points in the 1st quarter of Game 3, positioning the Nuggets to take a commanding 3-0 series lead in the Western Conference finals.

Murray, who was blistering in the bubble a few years ago, is a prideful player who feels slighted by the perception, at least in his mind, that he’s not in the class of the elite guards — Devin Booker, Luka Doncic, Donovan Mitchell, etc. Murray did miss considerable time while rehabbing a knee injury that cost him an entire season, and he was load-managed initially this season, and therefore missed out on all the award-earning accolades (All-NBA, All-Star, etc.). More than anything, he’s a victim of circumstance, and his injury, and the fact that Jokic handles much of the point guard chores.

There is a consolation, though. Murray is still playing and those other guards aren’t.

3. Anthony Davis, gassed

It was Davis’ turn to falter in the fourth quarter when he had nothing left at the finish. After playing inspired basketball through three quarters when he punished the Nuggets in the paint and especially on the glass, Davis was on empty. He had one basket and two rebounds in the quarter, and this followed LeBron James’ fourth-quarter disappearance that proved costly in Game 2.

Of course, it’s all about perspective. Davis was downright beastly, finishing with 28 points and 18 rebounds; is it reasonable to believe he could stretch that through 41 intense minutes? And where was the help?

It enhanced the notion that LeBron and AD are wearing down right before our eyes, right when the Lakers can least afford them to do so. Both are playing heavy minutes, as they have all postseason, and there’s a game every other night. That’s not ideal for a player with AD’s injury history and a 38-year-old star with creaky ankles.

There’s no rest for the weary, with the next game up in 48 hours. After enduring a tough season, spending plenty of energy rallying to make the Play-In Tournament, then dealing with the physicality of the Grizzlies in the first round and Steph Curry in the second round, the postseason is catching up to the Lakers’ two stars.

Oh, and maybe the Nuggets are simply the better team.

4. Another low for D-Lo

There was much jubilation in the Laker Nation when Russell Westbrook was essentially dumped for D’Angelo Russell in February, and that optimism was affirmed when Russell prospered in the final few months of the season, then amped up in the first two rounds.

But right now? He’s mainly unplayable in this series, a swift fall by a point guard whose shot isn’t dropping and whose lack of defense is being exploited by Jamal Murray. Russell is shooting under 30% from the floor in this series, just 19% from deep, and saw only 20 minutes Saturday.

As if his timing was bad enough, Russell will be an unrestricted free agent this summer and there’s no assurances he’ll be extended by the Lakers. It’s not a stretch to see a scenario where Chris Paul joins the Lakers next season if he and the Suns don’t see a future together. That’s the situation facing Russell. Not only is he playing for his playoff life right now, his Laker life is also at stake.

5. Storied franchise vs. storybook franchise

There couldn’t be a bigger contrast than the Nuggets and Lakers. One owns 17 championships, the other hasn’t even made the Finals in its 47 years in the league. One is a marquee team filled with Hall of Famers and all-time greats in a history that stretches back to 1947, the other feels constantly slighted by the basketball public and TV networks.

The Nuggets are the Goliath in this matchup. Any notion of this being a close Western Conference finals is all but over, and the best two players so far belong to the Nuggets.

It would be an obvious breakthrough by Denver to win one more game in this series. And if they capture a title next month, it would be a crowning achievement by the Kroenke family, which also owns the Colorado Avalanche and L.A. Rams — both of whom won NHL and NFL championships in the last three years.

“You need 16 wins to win a championship and we have five more to go,” said Murray. “We just gotta stay locked in.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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