The Denver Nuggets‘ comeback dreams remain alive.
The darlings of the bubble have done the unimaginable already as the first team in league history to win from trailing 3-1 in a best-of-seven series twice. But no team has ever fought back from down 3-0, and the Nuggets avoided having to try and become the first thanks to their 114-106 win to make it 2-1 going into Game 4 on Thursday night. They have to like their chances given they likely should have won Game 2. The Lakers remain the favourites, but the Nuggets don’t care about that and they play like it. Fun series so far.
Here are the biggest takeaways from Game 3 on Tuesday:
Murray and Jokic get badly needed help
Two trends have marked the Nuggets’ run to what would be their first NBA Finals: the brilliance of Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic, and the way they’ve have been able to come back in games and in series — they are the only team in NBA history to have won from down 3-1 in two series in the same year. No team has ever come back from being down 3-0 and the Nuggets won’t have to try to be the first after their wire-to-wire win Tuesday. But one thing that made Game 3 different than others in the series is that while Murray and Jokic were typically excellent — they combined for 50 points and 17 assists on 19-of-31 shooting — they got some badly needed help.
When Murray drove the lane for a dunk that put the Nuggets up 20 with 10:36 to play it gave him 20 points for the game, but defensive-minded Jerami Grant already had 21 at that point off the bench on his way to 26, a playoff career-high. Monte Morris added 14 and Michael Porter Jr. had nine. Those points were a big reason the Nuggets are in a position to even the series in Game 4.
LeBron showing no signs of slowing down
Give LeBron James credit, the guy knows how to make an exit. For all of his jaw-dropping accomplishments in his career, that he’s still among the fastest and most powerful players in the NBA in his 17th season might be the biggest stunner. After finishing a strong second to Giannis Antetokounmpo in MVP voting — the Milwaukee Bucks star had to put up one of the most dominant campaigns in NBA history for the league’s best (regular season) team to beat out James – the 35-year-old hasn’t missed a beat in the bubble. Early in the second quarter Tuesday, James went to the block, spun and dunked on the heads of multiple Nuggets, like he was 25 years old instead of 35. Heading into Game 3 against the Nuggets, James was averaging 25.6 points, 10 rebounds and 8.7 assists with a TS% of .645, which would be a career playoff best.
Who knows when his exit might be? It’s hard to watch him in this playoff run and think he won’t be at or near the league best’s for the two years remaining on his deal with the Lakers. His 30-point, 10-rebound, 11-assist triple-double was just more evidence. James looks well-positioned to lead the Lakers to his 10th Finals and a likely favourite to win his fourth championship with three different teams. He’s already the career-leader in playoff games won and points scored, and will soon pass Derek Fisher for playoff games played, and that’s just scratching the surface of his statistical dominance. As the Lakers stormed back from down 20 in the fourth, James had legs to make it happen: he scored 13 of his 30 down the stretch, a remarkable effort even if was for naught.
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Anthony Davis playoff MVP?
But here’s the scary thing about the Lakers: for the first time ever, James might not be the best player on his team. Anthony Davis’ game-winning three to win Game 2 put an exclamation point on it, but Davis has been legendary in his first deep playoff run, putting up 28.7 points, 10.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game with a TS% of .654 and leading the post-season in WS/48 with .311. If the playoffs ended after his game-winner Sunday, Davis almost certainly would be the MVP. With the Lakers down 14 midway through the second quarter and James on the bench, Davis began to put his stamp on the game, scoring nine straight points at one point as the Lakers worked to stay attached. Los Angeles went into the half down 63-53, with Davis scoring 16 of his 27 points.
It’s a scary thought that not only does James have a teammate that can win games for him, Davis – in the middle of his prime at age 27 — can carry the team when he rests too. Not that James is slowing down as he approaches his 36th birthday, but if and when he does, Davis will make his later years easier than he could have imagined. But he’s still got a way to go to completely carry the torch on behalf of James and the Lakers. He somehow finished with just two rebounds as Denver dominated the glass, and he was relatively silent in the second half and the Lakers’ comeback fell short. He’ll need to be better from here.
Lakers try to get under Murray’s skin
The ultimate compliment is when your opponent devotes their energy to getting under your skin in the hopes of throwing you off your game. The Lakers were giving some of that to Murray, who has earned that attention with his playoff performance so far. In the first quarter, there was the Lakers’ Alex Caruso boxing out Murray – a career 88 per cent free throw shooter – extra hard at the charity stripe. There was Rajon Rondo – a born irritant – flopping to draw a foul and forcing a turnover before bodying Murray on a drive the next play. In each case, Murray appealed to the referees for support and got none.
Murray is in that awkward stage of stardom where opponents are gearing their entire defensive philosophies to slowing him down and making life unpleasant, but isn’t quite at the point where the refs are making sure he’s not getting pushed around too much. But Murray kept working, showing sides of his game beyond his trademark silky shooting. As the Lakers were making a run late in the first half, Murray scored a physical layup that kept the Nuggets rolling. He finished the first, with 12 points and six assists on his way to 28 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds on the game.
Murray saved his best for last as his turnaround three-pointer with two minutes left helped blunt the Lakers’ 21-4 fourth-quarter run that nearly cost Denver the game. He followed that up with a great pass to Paul Millsap for a dunk and then another triple to put Denver up 12 after a 10-1 run. The Lakers might have tried to get under Murray’s skin, but he might be in the Lakers heads.
Once again Rajon Rondo showed that he’s a bigger part of the Lakers picture that might have been guessed heading into the season, and once again he showed that he’s able to lift his game in big moments in the playoffs. Rondo came off the bench for nine points, eight assists and three steals. His biggest impact came during the Lakers’ late surge as he made three steals in just over two minutes, all leading to immediate scores. “Playoff Rondo” is a quantifiable thing going back to his role as a rookie helping the Boston Celtics to a title in 2008. According to Tom Haberstroh of NBC Sports, the jump of 2.4 between Rondo’s regular-season Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 16 and his playoff PER of 18.4 is largest of any NBA player with a minimum of 100 playoff games to his credit. It wasn’t quite enough in Game 3, but it seems like a safe bet that Rondo, 34, will find a way to keep contributing as long as the Lakers keep playing