2020 Playoffs | West finals: (1) Lakers vs. (3) Nuggets

Despite dropping Game 3, it's still Lakers' series to lose

Los Angeles needs to fix some key issues, namely Kyle Kuzma's play and 3-point shooting

The team that’s leading the last six quarters of the Western Conference finals isn’t the team that’s leading the Western Conference finals. The Lakers are just an Anthony Davis Game 2 buzzer-beater from flipping their 2-1 advantage into a 1-2 deficit, and now the search begins in-house to discover why this is the case.

They were out-hustled and outplayed through much of Game 3, save for a fourth-quarter flurry triggered by “Playoff” Rajon Rondo, which briefly put a scare in the Nuggets before Jamal Murray perked up and Denver prevailed 114-106. There’s perhaps a sense of resignation in Laker World because this won’t be a sweep, yet L.A. still brings Davis and LeBron James, so there’s no trace of panic. This remains LeBron’s series to lose.

Yeah, but …

Did the Lakers, after six straight wins, simply ease their foot off the pedal Tuesday? Or is there a simmering of Laker issues that, if not properly addressed, could give the Comeback Nuggets another reason to believe in themselves? Maybe it’s a combination of both.

> Game 4: Lakers vs. Nuggets, Thursday at 9 ET on TNT

When a team that flaunts a pair of first-team All-NBA members rips through the first two rounds, and then sees their supposed biggest threat in the West — that would be the Clippers — get eliminated, then perhaps human nature takes over and a bit of overconfidence seeps in. You couldn’t blame the Lakers for that; happens every year to someone.

“We didn’t come out aggressively or physically,” said Davis. “We know we have to play from start to finish.”

If that’s what they’re guilty of more than anything else, then their problems are resolvable, certainly after the Nuggets just got their attention.

But there are a few annoying headaches that will make things harder for the Lakers (if not in this series, then in the NBA Finals should they advance that far). At the very top is Kyle Kuzma.

Before the playoffs, coach Frank Vogel said Kuzma “must be our third-best player.” There are times when Kuzma isn’t the third-best player off the bench. He’s still an enigma wrapped in a riddle, a seasonlong tease, a skilled player who every now and then will escape the fog that suffocates him, but mostly doesn’t.

On the other bench Tuesday, the Nuggets got a breakout game from Jerami Grant and saw some glimmer from Monte Morris. Basically, someone other than Murray and Nikola Jokic surfaced for Denver and that’s largely why they won.

Meanwhile, Kuzma had a soft 11 points and one rebound in 26 minutes and was mostly invisible. There was one hair-pulling moment when, in the final minutes while the Lakers furiously rallied to come within three points, Kuzma pump-faked a wide-open shot.

With the exception of one game in each of the first two rounds — that’s two games out of 13 now — Kuzma had what could be classified as an impact. Nothing major, but reasonable. Isn’t he supposed to be a difference-making third-wheel who feasts on open shots and takes advantage of having LeBron and AD command all the attention?

Another issue for the Lakers, and this isn’t breaking news here, is their 3-point shooting. In Game 3, they took 26 from deep and made six. Aside from the poor percentage, the Lakers settled too often on lazy 3s. That played right into the Nuggets’ hands. Remember, L.A.’s size was and is to its advantage. When the Lakers refuse to “play big,” the Nuggets can compete more comfortably with them.

Danny Green was supposed to supply that element to this team — that’s why they gave him a three-year contract last summer — yet he’s 5-for-17 so far against the Nuggets. If he doesn’t make the shot, Vogel can’t justify keeping him on the floor.

Finally, the Lakers may go the entire series without finding a defensive solution for Murray. This was largely expected; Murray is on a major roll in these playoffs and the Jazz and Clippers had no answer for him, either. When his team began to crumble and shiver late in the fourth quarter Tuesday, Murray bailed them out with killer shots to preserve the win.

There is something that’s working for the Lakers as a bonus: Vogel’s decision to put Rondo on Jokic for a handful of late possessions. On paper that seems a silly strategy; Jokic is almost a foot taller. But Jokic rarely sets up on the post. He plays high, and therefore right into Rondo’s hands. When Jokic has the ball, Rondo is daring him to dribble, and Jokic was clearly uncomfortable doing so in that situation. He knows Rondo will go for the steal — Rondo had a pair of steals, albeit off Murray, that nearly stole the game for L.A. Jokic was spooked by that; he didn’t even try to dribble or back Rondo down, and he didn’t score a basket with Rondo guarding him.

“He’s our best activity-communicator, with his gambling and what not,” Vogel said of Rondo. “He was a huge part of that run.”

Finally, the Lakers bamboozled the Nuggets with a 2-3 zone that aided the fourth-quarter comeback. Expect L.A. to revisit this again if necessary, although the Nuggets will surely watch the tape and try to counter with something.

“You’re looking for something to give your team a spark,” explained Vogel, “to change the game. It worked down the stretch but the hole we dug ourselves was too much to overcome.”

Before the game, Vogel joked how the Lakers needed to adjust to the high altitude in Denver for this game. Well, that was good for a few yuks. Weirdly, the Lakers then went and appeared out of gas in Orlando. Their issues are fixable. But they might want to get the toolbox out right away, before the plucky Nuggets get drunk on confidence and make a brave attempt to go a shocking two-for-two against L.A. basketball teams.

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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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