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

Nuggets botch final play, and what could be their best chance

Denver faces 2-0 series hole after near-stunning comeback attempt falters

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

In the words of Nikola Jokic, it was “a little” miscommunication, which is sorta like surveying the Pacific Ocean and comparing it to a hot tub.

So with all due respect to Jokic, who was merely being kind to the guilty party Sunday — teammates must always be supportive of each other — the mistake by Mason Plumlee was actually massive.

And now, in due time, the extent of the damage will determine how much longer the Nuggets remain in the Western Conference finals. Because right now, no thanks to a poor decision by Plumlee in Game 2’s moment of truth, they’re down 2-0 to the Lakers. That’s pushing the envelope, even in terms of their much-applauded comeback-ability.

Plumlee is the raw and limited backup center who normally wouldn’t even be on the floor for Denver in the final seconds of a tight game. Yet the Lakers bring size, and so Plumlee was inserted for the final possession: Nuggets up a point, Lakers with the ball, 2.1 seconds on the clock.

By now, hours after the fact, you either screamed this at your TV or the replay or both: “What is Plumlee doing?” And you wouldn’t be alone. Anybody who ever played the game, and those who haven’t, know you do not, under any circumstances, allow yourself to be stopped by a phantom screen.

It’s rather surprising, because Plumlee is a veteran player and … he went to Duke.

But Anthony Davis was free to catch the inbounds pass from Rajon Rondo, square up and release the game-winning 3-pointer. It swished at the buzzer, because Plumlee gave up the chase.

Before the inbounds pass, Plumlee was assigned to Davis. He and Jerami Grant, who was guarding LeBron, had a brief conversation about switching if LeBron picked Plumlee.

LeBron never moved. There was no screen.

And when Davis sprinted away from Plumlee, the trailing Nuggets’ center pursued him for about a step, then stopped and pointed at Davis, as though Grant should suddenly leave LeBron. Remember, there’s only two seconds left. Grant was locked on LeBron, and he’d have to go around LeBron to pickup Davis. So Grant correctly stayed with his man, who would’ve had a clear path for a dunk had Grant switched off.

Meanwhile, Plumlee released a guy who was the Lakers’ leading scorer in the second half and finished with 31 points, and two days earlier dropped 37 on Denver. Just a reminder: Plumlee wasn’t even screened. He just … surrendered and pointed.

You can watch and re-watch this play a million times and still come away with the same head-scratching reaction. (Also curious: After Davis’ shot swished, Rondo merely walked toward the ensuing chaos like nothing happened). Making matters more depressing for Denver, it was the lone second-half lapse by a Nuggets’ team that was far better prepared defensively than in the previous six quarters (including the four in Game 1). Denver gave up just 22 points in the third and 23 in the fourth and that allowed the Nuggets to rally hard and assume the lead on a tip-in followed by a 3-pointer from Jokic (he and Davis combined to score the last 22 points in the game). They had unsolved the Lakers’ riddle.

It’s not easy to figure them out. They’re really talented, they’re going to find solutions.”

Nuggets center Nikola Jokic

“It’s not easy to figure them out,” Jokic said. “We can just make them uncomfortable. They’re really talented, they’re going to find solutions. They have two really good, really good, really good players. We just need to stay on top and just make it uncomfortable.”

Nuggets coach Michael Malone also reached deep down his bench and inserted PJ Dozier, a second-year sub who hadn’t played many meaningful minutes in the playoffs, for the second half. Dozier did miss four free throws in the fourth quarter Sunday, but he had energy and wasn’t afraid of the moment, to the point where he became a problem for L.A. As a vote of confidence from the coach, Dozier was on the floor instead of Michael Porter Jr. for the final play, and slammed the ball in frustration after Davis’ shot fell through.

The inspiring lift from Dozier, the late take-charge by Jokic, the comeback — once again — by the Nuggets in these playoffs, all of that for naught because of how they finished up Game 2.

“We had it and kind of lost it in the end,” Jokic said. “We put effort in it, put fight in it. We played well most of the game. We’re going to keep our heads up and on to the next one.”

That remains to be seen. For sure, the Nuggets are not your head-hanging team. They refused to give up against Utah or the Clippers — maybe you heard? They were flicked aside rather easily by the Lakers in this series opener and now they must elevate themselves out of another hole. They will hear how you cannot keep falling behind and fighting back. They’ll also learn that LeBron is 22-0 lifetime whenever his team has a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven series.

They’ll keep chanting the encouraging words of Malone, who stayed with the glass-half-full approach and said: “We were in the game and they had to rely on a great play by a great player to beat us.”

Well, sure, that is correct.

But that great player was able to catch a pass, aim and shoot because Mason Plumlee suffered from brain lock. Maybe Anthony Davis makes that shot anyway. But in a best-case scenario for Denver, he doesn’t, and this series is tied.

“It happened, you know,” said Jokic. “It happened.”

* * *

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 .

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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