2024 Playoffs: West First Round | Nuggets (2) vs. Lakers (7)

Nuggets-Lakers: 5 takeaways as Nikola Jokic, Aaron Gordon step up in Game 3

Aaron Gordon turns in a playoff career night and Denver finds its A-game to put L.A. on the brink of elimination.

The Nuggets deflate the Lakers with an impressive team effort, getting 20 or more points from 4 players in their Game 3 victory.

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LOS ANGELES — If you get swept twice in two years, what’s the terminology for that — getting vacuumed?

Such is the humbling situation the Lakers find themselves in against the Nuggets, unfathomable when you think about it. Not only is it rare for a team to be whisked away repeatedly in this manner, but this is LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Yet, just as they did last year in the Western Conference Finals, the Nuggets have the Lakers in a headlock and about to flex. After spotting L.A. another double-digit first-half lead — the Lakers were also up 12 in Game 1, 20 in Game 2 and 10 after the first quarter of Game 3 — it was just another cruel tease.

Denver’s 112-105 victory Thursday was its 11th straight against the Lakers (regular season and postseason), giving the defending champs a 3-0 lead in the first-round series.

Here are five takeaways from Game 3:

1. Lakers were gassed mentally

Here’s how the Lakers started Game 3 — Anthony Davis dunk, Rui Hachimura dunk, LeBron James dunk. Feisty, aggressive and dare we say, angry.

Here’s how the Lakers ended Game 3 — droopy body language, LeBron dribbling off his knee out of bounds, D’Angelo Russell missing an open 3-pointer and hearing boos (and later refusing to join the timeout huddle).

Quite simply, this team crumbled. They couldn’t make deep shots (5-for-27), couldn’t keep a first-half lead and never gave the home crowd a reason for hope.

You wonder how much of the past played a big role in what happened Thursday, how much of the Lakers’ dismal recent history against the Nuggets stole their confidence.

Weirdly enough, the previous six playoff games were competitive. This one wasn’t after three quarters. So perhaps the magnitude of it all finally weighed on L.A.

Russell went 0-for-7 and was scoreless in 24 minutes, Davis (33 points) had three points in the fourth quarter and the Lakers’ defense crumbled in the paint. Those are signs of being whipped.

“We kind of lost track of the attention to detail we had in the first half,” LeBron said.

2. Lakers tried bating Jokic into foul trouble

And you know what? It worked. Davis drew two quick ones in the game’s first five minutes on Jokic, who had three by early in the third quarter.

But it didn’t work. The Lakers never seized advantage of the situation when Jokic either (a) played passively to avoid more fouls, or (b) left the game.

In the past, the Nuggets were always vulnerable whenever Jokic was not on the floor, making it a sound strategy by Davis to be aggressive early. But Denver didn’t fold. Michael Porter Jr., Jamal Murray and Aaron Gordon stepped forward. A 12-point Lakers lead early in the second quarter slowly evaporated.

And when Jokic rested for the first three minutes of the fourth quarter, the Nuggets’ lead … grew.

“There’s a confidence that comes with being a champion,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone. “Every time we get down, we don’t panic, we stay together and find a way to get back into the game. Winning a championship has brought that group tremendous confidence.”

 3. Nuggets are tough when Gordon gets rough

Aaron Gordon steps up with 29 points and 15 rebounds in Game 3 and the Nuggets moved to the brink of the semifinals.

The winning blueprint for the Nuggets is the pick-and-roll game between Murray and Jokic. That’s how they claimed a championship last season, a big man and frisky guard giving hell to any defense.

But there’s another way to win. That’s when Gordon gets involved and provides a paint presence by catching lobs and backdoor passes from Gordon and Jokic and dunking.

He had this on repeat Thursday and completely confused the Lakers, who inexplicably left him open or failed to box out. Gordon had playoff career highs of 29 points and 15 rebounds. This was a bit rich for him in the playoffs, but if he gives anything close to that Denver reaches its next level.

“Aaron Gordon was just incredible,” Malone said.

4. Nuggets finally play their A-game

That should send chills to the rest of the league. Aside from the game’s first eight minutes, the Nuggets were dominant.

They also didn’t lean heavily on Jokic and Murray, with four players scoring 20 points or more. This was the first “complete” win of the series for Denver, where almost everyone who broke a sweat managed to have a moment (or two).

This was championship chemistry on display, with the Nuggets using their familiarity to get open looks and easy buckets. And their defense has been excellent in the moments of truth during these first three games.

“It’s kind of a telepathy we’ve got with this group,” Gordon said. “We’ve got a mind-meld going on with the starting five.”

And about Jokic, who came one assist shy of a triple-double?

“He’s a genius who happens to play basketball,” Gordon said.

5. Lakers one loss from a long summer

So here’s the streaky situation: the Lakers must win four straight against a team that has beaten them 11 straight times, including four consecutive last summer in the West Finals and three straight in this series.

Mission impossible, in other words — especially since teams down 3-0 in a best-of-seven series are a combined 0-for-151.

As for which role players will stay and which ones will go this offseason, and whether this is the end for coach Darvin Ham? That’s all irrelevant as there’s only one issue: What will losing this series, especially if it’s a sweep, mean for LeBron’s future and mindset?

Since James signed with the Lakers in 2018, this franchise has been about championships or bust. They cashed in once. As terrific as he has played this season, LeBron turns 40 in December. At some point, the Big Decline will arrive.

He has a player option for next season. Most likely, he’ll decline it and accept a two-year extension. And then there’s the elephant in the room — could the Lakers draft his son Bronny (as soon as June?)

For someone who found himself in the SoFi Play-In Tournament and facing a sure first-round elimination, does LeBron believe the Lakers will ever be good enough to beat prime Jokic?

The cold truth is that it’s not LeBron’s league anymore. It belongs to the guy with the horse fixation.

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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 X.

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