Can LeBron, Lakers come back from brink against Nuggets?

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
The Sporting Tribune's Mark Medina writes that LeBron James has comeback from big deficits to win it all but this is the biggest.

LOS ANGELES — LeBron James raised his voice both in volume and tone.

The Lakers’ star flashed hints of frustration that he surely felt through the team’s 112-105 loss to the Denver Nuggets in Game 3 of their first-round series lead on Thursday after squandering a 12-point first-half lead.

James showed hints of annoyance that he expressed to officials that did not see him draw contact when he drove to the rim. And James expressed defiance over an issue that partly explains why the Lakers face a 0-3 series deficit against Denver for the second consecutive postseason.

The topic: whether the Lakers have felt overwhelmed with matching the Nuggets’ championship excellence and whether their confidence has deflated amid that fruitless pursuit.

“It’s the postseason. We’re professionals. You’re supposed to have anxiety and feel pressure,” James said. “This is the postseason. This is what it’s about. This is what the postseason is about. I don’t know how to answer that question.

“I don’t know. You have to ask individuals that question and see how they feel. It’s hard for me to just be like, ‘This what I think.’ I’m not a mind reader.”

James then looked over at teammate Anthony Davis and reflected on their journey during their first season together in the 2019-20 season. Then, the Lakers won an NBA title on a campus bubble during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We know what it takes to win a championship and how near perfect you have to be,” James said. “That is not something that is so crazy to obtain.

“I’ve been a part of it four times to have to play almost perfect basketball with him. I’ve done it with him. I’m not a guy you should ask that because I don’t feel that way.”

Understandable for James to maintain such self-confidence. He has played 20 NBA seasons because of his sustained durability and excellence. He became the league’s all-time leading scorer for the same reasons. He helped the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers become the first NBA team to overcome a 3-1 Finals series deficit.

Yet, James encounters a challenge that appears far greater than battling the dynasties in San Antonio Spurs (2007, 2013, 2014) and Golden State Warriors (2015-2018) during previous NBA Finals appearances. James has the unenviable task with trying to make this year’s Lakers the first team in NBA history to overcome an 0-3 series deficit. That starts with the Lakers hosting Game 4 on Saturday at Arena.

“You just go with the mindset to go get one, force a Game 5 and then go from there,” James said. “As long as you still have life, you’re always going to have belief. You play until the wheels fall off.”

It has seemed inevitable for the Lakers’ wheels to fall off during each post-season game against Denver.

The Lakers squandered a 12-point first-half lead, marking the third consecutive game they coughed up a double-digit halftime cushion. The Lakers stormed out with a fast pace, only to play at a more methodical style to Denver’s liking. James (26 points on 12-for-20 shooting, nine assists ) and Davis (33 points, 15 rebounds) received little bench help for the third consecutive game (a combined 19 points).

Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell went scoreless while missing all seven shot attempts and six 3s, marking the second time in three games he has struggled with his marksmanship.

Just when it seemed the Lakers could slow down Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (22 points) with early foul trouble), Denver relied on Aaron Gordon for help with open looks at the rim (29 points) and open rebounds (15).

Just when it seemed the Lakers could contain Nuggets point guard Jamal Murray (22 points on 8-for-21 shooting), Denver leaned on Michael Porter Jr. for additional scoring punch (20 points on 8-for-16 shooting).

Just when it seemed the Lakers couldn’t fare any worse than they did from 3-point range (5-for-27), they looked just as ineffective on the boards (51-38).

The game became so frustrating that a segment of Lakers fans shouted loudly for the franchise to fire coach Darvin Ham amid his struggles with making in-game adjustments.

“Denver is just beating us, to be honest,” guard Austin Reaves said. “You can talk about adjustments. You can talk about this and that.

“But at the end of the day, we have to put our best foot forward to win a basketball game. You can talk about everything else outside of the talks with everything. But at the end of the day, you have to man up and go get it.”

Perhaps easier said than done. The Nuggets have more talent to absorb James and Davis playing at their best. They have more depth to expose the Lakers’ inconsistent supporting cast. They have more continuity to ensure more effective in-game adjustments between both their coaching staff and players.

Despite the Lakers showing a well-intentioned effort, it appears they have become frustrated with playing at their absolute best in the first half only leading to the Nuggets revving up their championship-fueled engine with ease. Add it all up, and Denver has beaten the Lakers in 11 consecutive games since Jan. 22, 2023. Following that regular-season win, the Nuggets swept the Lakers in last year’s Western Conference Finals, won all three regular-season matchups this season and maintained a 3-0 first-round series lead.

“They have to do a better job with staying focused and staying positive throughout it all,” Ham said. “You have those disappointment moments.

“That disappointment can spill over into two, three or four possessions. You see someone make a mistake, you drop your head and start jogging back. We have to fight through all of that.”

James and Davis vowed they will at least do their part.

“Our focus and our mental right now is just trying to get one, trying to get a game and then go from there,” Davis said. “Trying to come here on Saturday, win Game 4 and go from there.

“All the talk about however many straight [losses], we can’t focus on that. Our focus is trying to get better from tonight in learning our mistakes and try to get a win on Saturday.”

Despite James’ confidence, he hasn’t exactly had a stellar track record with facing an 0-3 series deficit.

The Spurs swept his Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2007 NBA Finals. During his second stint in Cleveland, James experienced the same result to Golden State in the 2018 NBA Finals. Last year, the Nuggets swept the Lakers in a game that felt so taxing that James spent part of his post-game interview openly considering retirement. James could only help the 2017 Cavaliers team win Game 4 of the NBA Finals against Golden State before losing on the road in Game 5.

Based off his dismissiveness toward any notion that the Lakers may feel overwhelmed with the moment, James presumably makes little of his own checkered history with handling a 0-3 series deficit.

“It’s just basketball,” James said. “At the end of the day, its’ just basketball.”

Mark Medina is a Lakers/Clippers writer for Sporting Tribune. Follow him on XInstagramFacebook and Threads.