Matt Brooks
Writer & Digital Content Specialist

The Denver Nuggets are one win away from the first NBA Finals berth in franchise history. They're five victories away from hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy.

Denver's playoff run has been dominant. They've lost just 3 total games through almost three full rounds of play, going a ridiculous 11-3 in the 2023 postseason. The Nuggets have yet to lose at home and have built an early 2-0 lead in every series they've played in. Now, they're on the verge of pulling off their first four-game sweep in franchise history, up 3-0 against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.

Their victory in Game 3 might've been Denver's most impressive playoff win yet. The Nuggets lost the rebounding battle, which has largely dictated the outcome of their playoff games, but they managed to come out on top, 119-108.

How'd they do it? Though they lost the war on the glass, Denver made up the difference in other aspects of defense. Namely, the Nuggets found a way to shrink the floor defensively without conceding too many three-pointers.

Los Angeles shot just 60.7 percent around the basket in Game 3 (as a reminder, the Lakers made a ridiculous 84 percent of their at-rim shots in Game 1). But the Lakers also shot just 31.2 percent from three. Denver's defense did its job.

There were other takeaways to be had in Game 3, which we'll touch on momentarily.

But first, a look at the injury report.


Los Angeles:
Anthony Davis — Probable (Right Foot Stress Injury)
LeBron James — Probable (Right Foot Soreness)

Will Kentavious Caldwell-Pope continue to thrive in his revenge series?

Though Denver cruised across the finish line with a near-double-digit victory, Game 3 did not always feel like a surefire Nuggets' win.

Nikola Jokić picked up his fourth foul early in the third quarter and did not reemerge until the fourth quarter. Denver had to navigate the choppy waters without their star for more than seven full minutes of play in a pivotal Game 3.

Enter Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who finished Saturday night with 17 points on 6-of-10 shooting and was 4-for-7 from three. Playing in the Crypto.com Arena, formally known as the Staples Center, is an all too familiar feeling for KCP. He spent four seasons with the Lakers, winning an NBA championship in 2020.

Caldwell-Pope's been outstanding in the Conference Finals against his former employer, averaging 15.3 points on 51.4 percent from the field and 45 percent from three-point range. As a reminder, KCP's exit from Los Angeles was sudden; he was dealt to Washington alongside Kyle Kuzma for Russell Westbrook.

The Conference Finals is a bit of a revenge series for Caldwell-Pope.

Back to the third quarter. Jokić was on the bench due to foul trouble, and Jamal Murray was beginning to tire after his ridiculous 30-point first half. Denver needed scoring punch. And fast.

Clinging onto a 4-point lead, Denver ran a play with KCP setting a ball screen for Murray and then popping behind the three-point line. Murray then rode a second ball screen from Aaron Gordon before passing to Caldwell-Pope at the left wing.

Los Angeles did a nice job recovering, and Lonnie Walker IV closed out to KCP with perfect timing. But then KCP hit a mean jab-step before firing up the three. Splash.

A minute later, the Nuggets went to a different play that was tailored to KCP's skillset. With Jamal Murray handling the rock, Aaron Gordon set a pindown screen for Caldwell-Pope. A "pindown" is an off-ball screen for an offensive player that faces the baseline.

KCP came off that screen, caught the rock, took two dribbles, and then rose up from about the free-throw line against his matchup, Walker IV. The shot was pure.

By this point, Caldwell-Pope was feeling it. So much so that Murray gave the ball up to him to end the period. KCP sized up his matchup, crossed to his left, and then drew contact for free throws.

Caldwell-Pope ended up with 6 points in the final two minutes of the third quarter. It was a crucial stretch for Denver with their best player, Jokić, glued to the sidelines with foul trouble. Moreover, it epitomized what makes this Denver team so dangerous: its egalitarian offense.

"Nikola Jokić gets in foul trouble. This is the key time in the game. Are we going to survive with Nikola on the bench with four fouls?," said Malone after Game 3. "And we did. I thought KCP was unbelievable in that stretch. Made big plays, made big shots, and our defense stepped up to hold water while Nikola was out."

Michael Porter Jr. continues to evolve his game

Michael Porter Jr. is just 24 years old. It's difficult to conceptualize at times, given how crucial of a role he's played on a team that's one win away from an NBA Finals appearance. But MPJ's journey is realistically just beginning.

That's without mentioning the time he's missed on the sidelines while recovering from injury. 2022-23 is just the second time he's played in at least 60 regular season games, and he's got just under 6,130 total regular season and postseason minutes under his belt.

Porter Jr.'s evolution as a player took a noticeable jump toward the tail end of the regular season. He's only improved in the postseason, particularly on the defensive end, which was one of his major weak points coming into the league.

Saturday was another stepping-stone performance for MPJ. There's a chance it becomes a keystone event we'll highlight on his career timeline when lauding over his career in ten or so years.

In what was very easily Denver's biggest game of the season, Porter Jr. dished out 6 assists, a career-high in both the regular season and postseason. Much like his defense, creating for others was not something that came naturally for Mike. That has started to change in the postseason crucible.

All postseason long, Michael Malone has touted MPJ for his selflessness and determination to win a championship. Game 3 was the latest example of that. His selflessness came in the form of passing.

Two of MPJ's assists came by leading the break. Now, a younger Porter Jr. might've pulled up and taken a bad shot in these situations. Not on Saturday. His second assist was particularly nasty, lofting it perfectly over the top of the defense to Jokić after drawing in a crowd.

Porter Jr. also found Bruce Brown with a perfectly placed lay-down pass after being run off the three-point line. Again, the MPJ of old might've taken a floater over the top of Austin Reaves, a smaller defender. But no, Porter Jr.'s maturation process shone through. He turned a good possession into a great one.

Speaking of Brown, he and Porter Jr. exhibited exquisite chemistry in Game 3. Porter Jr. made the extra pass twice to Brown in the corner instead of hoisting the three-point shot, which Bruce turned into five points.

MPJ's second assist to Brown from the video below might've been his best all night. He forced Anthony Davis, Los Angeles' best interior defender, to account for him on the perimeter before losing him on a stepback move. This caused Walker IV to step up, and Porter Jr. quickly moved the ball to Brown in the corner for three points.

"Last night for him to have six assists and no turnovers," said Michael Malone. "And to make right reads where he shot-fakes, drives, draws help, and finds Bruce Brown in the corner. Or drives into the paint, draws a crowd, and doesn't force up a bad tough shot, he finds the open man. So I think it's maturity. I think it's development, and it's just the tip of the iceberg because Michael is fully understanding how important he can be and how great he can be when he opens up to playing every aspect of the game."

Remember the date: May 20, 2023. The day that Michael Porter Jr. became Michael Passer Jr.

TUNE-IN TO Game 4: Monday 6:30 p.m. MT, ESPN and 92.5FM