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Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray topping Lakers’ LeBron James, Anthony Davis as duos

LOS ANGELES –  Finally, the Lakers stopped Jamal Murray from scoring with better defensive execution. Finally, the Lakers slowed down Nikola Jokic by forcing him into foul trouble.

It didn’t matter. Jokic and Murray still dominated as the Denver Nuggets cruised to a 119-108 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals on Saturday at Crypto.com Arena. Murray finished with 37 points, seven rebounds and six assists after posting 30 of those points in the first half. Although Jokic snapped his seven-game streak with a triple double, he still produced a balanced game with 24 points, eight assists and six rebounds.

Nothing captured their resolve better than when Jokic collected his fourth foul with 7:24 left in the third quarter. Though he sat for the rest of the quarter, Jokic pleaded to his teammates and the coaching staff to run the offense through him and Murray during the fourth quarter.

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“Nikola, you can’t keep him down for a whole game,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “The end of the game, him and Jamal were playing a two-man game. I have to give credit where credit is due. That was Nikola’s call.”

That call turned out to be the right one. While playing the entire fourth quarter, Jokic posted 15 points on 5-for-7 shooting, two rebounds and two assists. Murray chipped in with seven points and one assist. And after Lakers forward Rui Hachimura made a pair of foul shots for a 94-93 lead with 7:48 left, the Nuggets closed out the game with a 26-14 run with their two star players scoring 15 of those points.

No wonder Malone affectionally addressed his star player as “Coach Jokic.”

“I don’t want to be a coach,” Jokic said. “I think that’s the worst job on the planet.”

Jokic drew laughter after saying those words. That dynamic captured something, however, that the Lakers have sorely lacked in this series. They have not been able to rely on LeBron James and Anthony Davis to offer the same role.

No doubt, both James and Davis have maintained their competitiveness. They have stayed disciplined with their recovery while playing games every other day. And though there has never been an NBA team in league history that has overcome an 0-3 series deficit, both players preached about the importance of just focusing on Game 4 on Monday in LA.

“Obviously, it’s a steeper climb being down 0-3,” Davis said. “But we are going to keep taking it one game at a time.”

Yet, the numbers speak for themselves.

  • Nikola Jokic playoff stats: 29.9 PPG, 13.2 RPG, 10.1 APG, 1.1 SPG, 54.4% FG

Davis finished with a respectable 28 points on 11-for-18 shooting, 18 rebounds and two blocks. But he hasn’t had the same reinforcements to help with defending Jokic as he has with his Denver teammates. After posting 40 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks in Game 1, Davis followed that up with 18 points on 4-for-15 shooting, 14 rebounds, four blocks and four turnovers in Game 2. In Game 3, James added 23 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds. But he went 3-for-9 from 3-point range after missing his first 10 attempts through Games 1 and 2. In his 20th NBA season, the 38-year-old James also has looked increasingly fatigued as the series has played out.

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This series reveals the exact opposite of the 2020 Western Conference Finals, which the Lakers won in five games. While Davis topped Jokic in points per game (31.2, 21.8) in that series, James surpassed Murray in both scoring (27.0, 25.0) and assists (9.0, 7.4). The tables have since turned, though the Nuggets’ stars refused to gloat.

“They’re not going to just lay down and let us beat them on their home floor,” Murray said of James and Davis. “We know next game is going to be another test. They’re going to come out more aggressive. AD is going to be more aggressive. LeBron is going to be more aggressive. So the crowd is going to be more into it.”

Most opponents play that way in a Game 3 home game since historically that has marked the last chance for a team to overcome an 0-2 deficit. The Nuggets prevented that from happening, though.

The reason first started with Murray. After scoring 23 of his 37 points in the fourth quarter in Game 2, Murray carried that same energy at the beginning of Game 3. Murray made eight of his first 10 shots. He punished the Lakers for defending him with single coverage. Even if the Lakers had better defensive schemes, Murray likely would have lit them up anyway.

“If a guy has got it going, we’re going to ride that guy,” Malone said. “We know at some other point in the game, we are going to need somebody else to step up and make a play.”

That moment eventually happened in the second half. The Lakers defended Murray with more physicality while he went scoreless and missed five shots in the third quarter. That coincided with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scoring 12 of his 17 points during that time period. Bruce Brown (15) and Michael Porter Jr. (14) also cracked double figures. Those contributions helped the Nuggets (17-for-41) vastly outshoot the Lakers (10-for-32) from 3-point range. Those contributions also helped the Nuggets commit only five turnovers.

Yet, the biggest fallback option fell to Jokic. Following his missed 3, a short floater and a turnover, Jokic rectified his sluggish fourth-quarter start with a pair of layups and a made foul shot. Less than a minute later, Murray entered the lineup and began running a two-man game with Jokic. The duo became nearly unstoppable.

“We made a concerted effort to post up Nikola every time, to get into the bonus early, which we did, and just play through him,” Malone said. “That’s the thing about Nikola: You can throw whatever defense you want at him. His IQ is just through the roof. He’s going to figure out what you’re doing and how he can play his game, but also now he can make
those around him better.”

James and Davis have prided themselves on doing the same thing with their teammates. They have experienced some limitations, though. In Game 3, Austin Reaves (23 points on 7-for-10 shooting) and Rui Hachimura (13 points on 5-for-12 shooting) made timely shots. Reaves (3-for-5) and Lonnie Walker IV (2-for-5) also thrived from deep. The Lakers struggled overall, however, with D’Angelo Russell (1-for-6) and Dennis Schroder (0-for-2) shooting so poorly from 3. It did not help the Lakers committed 12 turnovers and conceded 19 fast-break points.

The Nuggets did not face such issues because of their superior depth and continuity. Nonetheless, everything starts with how its team’s stars perform. Not only did Murray and Jokic live up to that role with their play. They also helped each other strategize both during Murray’s third-quarter scoring struggles and Jokic’s late foul trouble.

“We didn’t rush anything, and we made a good play every time out of it,” Murray said. “We did a good job of just executing. Jokic did a good job of clearly in English speaking to the team in the huddle about where everybody should be.”

Mark Medina is an NBA Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.

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