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

Unafraid Nuggets continue to show improvement in each game against top-seeded Lakers

Los Angeles Lakers coach Frank Vogel pointed to poor shooting, a lack of physicality and overall sharpness in explaining his team’s 114-106 loss to the Denver Nuggets in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals.

Still, when none of that pops, Vogel believes there’s a simple counter.

“When that happens, you’ve got to win with your energy and your hustle,” he said.

Denver rode those attributes hard Tuesday to pull the series to within a game.

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

The hustle statistics from Game 3 pretty much prove as much.

The Lakers hit just 6-for-23 3-pointers in Game 3, and that registered as their second-lowest output of the postseason from deep. L.A. bigs Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard only exacerbated the shooting woes by combining for just four rebounds as Denver won the battle of the boards 44-25.

Credit Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant for keeping the Lakers’ bigs off the glass. That trio alone combined for more defensive box outs (16) than the entire Los Angeles squad.

That played significantly in helping the Nuggets seize an 11-4 advantage in second-chance points.

“We didn’t play our best game, that’s for sure,” Vogel said. “We weren’t as sharp as we should’ve been, could’ve been, in particular to start the game and into the second quarter; a step slow to some things. We weren’t as physical as we need to be. As a result, we created a deficit for ourselves that was tough to overcome. So, we didn’t play as sharp as we need to, and we had a poor shooting night. It was our worst shooting night since Game 1 against Portland.”

While it’s certainly debatable, Denver feels it could actually be leading this series 2-1. What’s undeniable, however, is the continued improvement we’re seeing from the Nuggets in different facets in every game. Denver knocked down 54.8% of its field goals in Game 3 to run its record to 5-0 this postseason when it shoots 50% or better.

The Nuggets also turned 16 Laker turnovers into 25 points, despite allowing 23 points off their 20 turnovers.

After falling 126-114 in Game 1 on the strength of Los Angeles reeling off 35 points in transition, Denver tightened up that area of its game, allowing just eight points on fast breaks in Game 2, only to fall victim to Davis in the end on a buzzer-beater. Los Angeles outrebounded the Nuggets in that game 44-31 and outpaced them 16-12 in second-chance points.

“After Game 1, the goal was to eliminate the easy baskets we were giving them. I thought our transition defense in Game 2 was terrific,” Malone said. “We didn’t rebound as well as we needed to. But last night we had a plus-19 rebound margin. I don’t think that’s been talked about enough. We limited the Lakers to four offensive rebounds for 4 points, which is unbelievable.”

Surprisingly, they’ve also found ways to, at times, slow down Los Angeles stars James and Davis.

Paul Millsap has guarded Davis for nearly 16 minutes this series, limiting him to a total of 20 points on 27.8% shooting from the field. Throughout the postseason, Davis has connected on 50% or better from the floor against every other player he’s matched up against for at least 10 minutes.

“I think we’ve done a better job of guarding LeBron, guarding A.D., giving them different looks, making the floor crowded, and then flying around and making plays behind that,” Malone said. “So, that’s where it starts for us: we’re a team that has to defend at a high level because that gives our offense life, and that’s the only chance that we have.”

Toss in the strong two-way play from Jerami Grant (scored a playoff career-high 26 points on 7-for-11 shooting in Game 3), along with budding superstar Jamal Murray (playoff career-high 12 assists to go with 28 points in Game 3) and Jokic, who has registered the most career playoff games in NBA history (14) over his first two postseasons with at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, and it’s easy to see why Denver continues to play unafraid against this high-powered Lakers squad teeming with postseason experience.

Millsap’s tenacious defense on Davis, Grant’s breakout play and Jokic’s two-way dominance and hustle seem to just create more opportunities for Murray to continue flourishing. He’s scored 21 points or more in every game of this series, and we’ve already seen him drop a couple of 50 pieces in the opening round of the postseason, not to mention 40 more in Denver’s Game 7 win over the L.A. Clippers in the semifinals.

Murray’s two 3-pointers over the last 2:17 put Game 3 on ice.

“You definitely learn more about your opponent and what to try to look for, tendencies and all of that [as the series progresses],” Murray said. “If we’re consistent in our play, we can win a lot of games and put a lot of pressure on other teams. Now we’re back in the series, and we’ve got to forget about this and move on to Game 4.”

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here , find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

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