Swanson: Nuggets subdue Lakers for 3-0 lead, look like NBA champions

LOS ANGELES — Congratulations, Denver, on your first NBA title.

Technically, yes, there’s more basketball to be played. And the Nuggets aren’t celebrating yet. But give it a few days and they will be, they’ll have their mitts on the Larry O’Brien trophy for the first time.

You could sense it Saturday night at Crypto.com Arena, when they fought off not just the Lakers’ increasing desperation, but the human inclination to let down. They sent Lakers fans to the exits early, minutes before the clock expired in Denver’s 119-108 victory, good for a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference finals.

The Nuggets’ next victory will be the biggest in franchise history, as will the four that come after that.

Because while the Miami Heat have a lot of heart, they don’t have the horses to run with Denver. And Boston, if it can become the sixth team ever to rally after losing the first two games of a series at home, will have to expend a ton of energy to do it.

Meanwhile, the Nuggets seem determined to schedule a few days off before their first NBA Finals appearance.

PHOTOS: Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets use a fourth-quarter run to take a 3-0 series lead on the Lakers.

Whether they tie a bow on the conference finals Monday in L.A. or Wednesday at home, the Lakers will be able to say what the Nuggets have been saying a lot lately: They lost to the eventual champs.

So talk your talk, Michael Malone. The Lakers – even with more appropriate pieces around LeBron James and Anthony Davis, even after digging in Saturday – don’t have answers for your schemes or your team.

And your Nuggets have all of them, almost like they have the answer key. Or maybe, more likely, like they studied really hard to get here.

While so many Western Conference teams toiled fitfully this season, dodging injuries and other interruptions, personnel changes and ever-more-frequent load management, Denver stayed steady, kept putting one step in front of the other – staying in front of all the conference’s would-be challengers who might or might not have thought the Joker’s team was joking.

The suits Nikola Jokic wore to every game, though – “wearing a suit means business,” he said, “it means that I’m here to do my job” – should have been a sign.

“I just don’t like how the guys are dressing up for the games. Wearing a suit means business, it means that I’m here to do my job.”

Jokic pic.twitter.com/rFecxA9w49

— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) December 21, 2022

The Nuggets who took over first place on Dec. 20, at 19-11, and never budged?

They are, in fact, the best in the West. Soon-to-be best in the world.

The Lakers and everyone else will be spending the summer trying to spruce up their squads to stop them next season.

Jokic, Murray and Michael Porter Jr. have been teammates in Denver for four years, all under Malone. They’ve made the playoffs every season. Advanced in every postseason but the last one, when they ran into the eventual NBA champion Golden State Warriors first.

They’ve been building off their 2020 playoff run, when they twice rallied from 3-1 deficits before running into the eventual champion Lakers. The same organization that has knocked out Denver in four of its five Western Conference finals appearances, all except the first one in 1978, the Nuggets’ second season, when the Seattle SuperSonics did it.

Everyone remembers “Bubble Murray,” the version of the Denver guard who went on a super-sonic run on the NBA’s closed Florida campus in 2020. Murray had a pair of 50-point games in the first round there and then a 40-point game to send home Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and the Clippers. He wasn’t as radioactive against the Lakers that year, but he still averaged 25 points in five games against them.

But he’s since had to recover from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in April 2021, and he hadn’t again approached that brand of buoyancy. That’s why former Nuggets guard Bones Hyland, after he was traded to the Clippers this season, thought it fair to throw a subtle jab when describing his time in Denver: “There’s two guys over here (Leonard and George) who was a phenomenal talent and you know over there, one guy was a phenomenal talent as well.”

Oh, but Denver has two of those guys, after all.

Murray, a 26-year-old Canadian, hit the Lakers with a 23-point fourth quarter on Thursday in Denver, and – check, check, one-two, one-two – he was scalding still when play resumed Saturday in L.A.

He poured in 30 of his game-high 37 points in the first half on a barrage from just about everywhere on the floor. Finally, the Lakers’ Dennis Schröder poured himself into menacing Murray into something close to submission (seven second-half points). But by that time, and although Jokic was on the bench in foul trouble for all but 4:36 of the third quarter, Murray’s mates were munching.

Kentavious Caldwell Pope – a key cog on that Lakers’ 2020 championship team – scored 12 of his 17 points after halftime. Michael Porter Jr. had nine points and eight rebounds in the second half – and displayed some downright mature decision-making. Bruce Brown had a chatty 11 second-half points on 5-for-8 shooting.

And then Jokic – the Nuggets’ wizard of a “point center” – closed the book with 15 of his 24 points in the final period.

They never let the Lakers build momentum, and they finished with 30 assists on 44 made baskets, and just six turnovers.

And for the first time, they notched an 11th victory in a playoff run that, this time, is running the Lakers off course.

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