LOS ANGELES — It was a long, grueling run, and it was mostly uphill from the start.
The Lakers put their heads down, churned their legs and pumped their arms.
When they got to the end, the Denver Nuggets were still in front of them.
Way in front.
The Nuggets pushed the Lakers to the brink of elimination in the Western Conference finals, seizing a 119-108 victory and a 3-0 series lead on Saturday night at Crypto.com Arena. The Nuggets can advance to the first NBA Finals in their history with a win Monday in Game 4.
Game 5, if necessary, will be Wednesday in Denver.
As of Saturday, it didn’t appear it would be necessary.
When the Nuggets needed a key play or a big shot, they got it, building a double-digit lead in the early minutes and then turning back the Lakers again and again down the stretch. When the Lakers needed a big play or a big shot, they couldn’t get it and lost for the first time in seven home playoff games.
Overall, the Lakers had won nine in a row on their home court and had not lost three games in a row anywhere since early February.
Jamal Murray scored 30 of his 37 points in the first half for the Nuggets. Nikola Jokic overcame a halting start to score 19 of his 24 points in the second half. They led the Nuggets on a 13-0 run in the fourth quarter, turning a 94-93 deficit into a 106-94 lead, silencing a sellout of 18,997.
Game over. Season almost over.
No team in NBA history has rallied from a 3-0 deficit to win a best-of-seven playoff series.
“Difficult but not impossible,” a defiant Lakers coach Darvin Ham said.
LeBron James said he retained hope the Lakers could make some history.
“I can’t speak for the guys right now because I don’t know what’s going on through all their minds, but I still do,” James said. “So, you know, it’s time to go back home and start to refuel and start the treatment process and recovery process and get ready for Monday. My mindset is always locked in as if it’s Game 1.”
In fact, the Lakers got to this point by being resilient, by playing catch-up well. They started the season with 10 losses in their first 12 games. They were counted out almost before they got started, and again after a midseason roster makeover. They needed to win a play-in game to earn the No. 7 seed.
The odds are stacked against them, though.
“You can’t have self-inflicted wounds,” Ham said. “Whether it’s turnovers, whether it’s offensive rebounds, silly fouls that help them get to the bonus quicker – you have to be extremely, extremely disciplined. You’ve got to have some things fall your way, as well. It’s unfortunate, but no one is going to feel sorry for you.”
Anthony Davis had 28 points and 18 rebounds for the seventh-seeded Lakers, whose run of upsets has hit a wall against the top-seeded Nuggets. James had 23 points, seven rebounds and 12 assists, ending his slump from 3-point range with 3-of-9 shooting from behind the arc.
Austin Reaves scored 23 points, but he was the only other Lakers starter to score in double figures. D’Angelo Russell’s shooting slump in the conference finals continued. He scored three points on 1-for-8 shooting with three rebounds and four assists in only 20 minutes in Game 3.
“I don’t know,” Russell said of attempting to regain his shooting touch in time for Game 4. “I don’t know. I really don’t. I don’t know. I’ll try to figure it out.”
Jokic had only five points on 2-for-8 shooting and the Nuggets still managed to lead 58-55 by halftime. That’s because Murray continued to sizzle after his 23-point second-half outburst in Denver’s 108-103 victory in Game 2. Murray was the Nuggets’ savior again, scoring 30 points on 13-for-20 shooting in the first half.
Jokic, in particular, struggled to find any sense of rhythm. In addition to his misses, Jokic picked up his third foul inside the final minute of the half, fouling Reaves, who made two free throws to tie the score 55-55. Murray then fed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for a 3-pointer and a 58-55 lead.
“This is a very good group because they’re both so dynamic, with the way Jamal Murray has been shooting the ball and then just the ability of Jokic, his ability to get the best out of everybody on the team,” Reaves said. “You know, (Jokic) is going to put you in a position to be successful.
“When you have two guys like that, it’s very hard to guard (them).”
Reaves expects the team to keep battling.
“Our backs have been against the wall (for) probably about the last two months, maybe more than that since the trade deadline,” Reaves said. “Swinging, throwing punches to fight to get to this opportunity. … We can either come out Monday and go home, or we can fight for another day. And with the group of guys that we’ve got, I know what that answer will be.”
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