LOS ANGELES – Just as they have all season, the Lakers still competed until the very end. Just as they have all season, the Lakers showed various flaws with LeBron James fighting Father Time, their role players fighting inconsistency and their overall team showing mixed results in matching their effort with execution.
Therefore, it does not seem surprising the Lakers experienced a 119-108 loss to the Denver Nuggets in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals on Saturday at Crypto.com Arena. They had spent the entire 2022-23 season overcoming challenges with a slow start, key injuries and a flawed roster. James continued defying the odds during his 20th season at 38 years old with showcasing performances that mirrored his prime years. And though nearly half their roster arrived after the trade deadline, the Lakers fulfilled enough positional needs and chemistry after dealing Russell Westbrook that they proved worthy of a playoff contender.
As shown throughout their playoff series against the Nuggets, however, the Lakers have finally faced a team that can absorb their best effort because of their talent and depth. No wonder the Nuggets have a commanding 3-0 series lead with a chance to advance to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history with a Game 4 win on Monday. And though the Lakers professed they will keep fighting, no team has ever overcome an 0-3 series deficit in NBA history.
“Just got to get one. Just one at a time,” James insisted. “Just focus on Game 4, and you know, that’s all you
can really think about.”
Fair enough. The Lakers aren’t thinking about their season obituary as the media and some Lakers fans might following their Game 3 loss. The Lakers’ stubbornness partly explains how they arrived at this stage, anyway. The Lakers overcame a 2-10 start by staying competitive and resilient. The Lakers overcame a flawed roster with Westbrook by acquiring needed pieces before the trade deadline to address their playmaking (D’Angelo Russell), shooting (Malik Beasley), wing depth (Rui Hachimura) and interior depth (Jarred Vanderbilt, Mo Bamba). The Lakers overcame both Memphis and Golden State in the playoffs by relying on a healthy and effective James and Anthony Davis while leaning on a handful of their role players.
So why shouldn’t the Lakers harbor the same determination entering a potential elimination game?
“Take it one game at a time,” said Davis, who had 28 points and 18 rebounds. “Come Monday, leave it out on the floor, and try to get a win. Take it to Game 5, Game 6, Game 7. That’s all you can really do.”
Maybe so. The Lakers mostly brought that mindset in Game 3, but the outcome still ended with a loss.
They began Game 3 with exactly the opposite approach they should have had in essentially a must-win game. They shot poorly from the field (30.4%) and from deep (28.6%). Though he had a break-out performance in Game 2, Nuggets guard Jamal Murray started Game 3 doing whatever he wanted en route to 30 first-half points.
Yet, the Lakers nursed only a 58-55 half-time deficit because they compensated elsewhere. Nuggets center Nikola Jokic had only five points on 2-for-8 shooting while collecting three fouls. Davis and Austin Reaves each scored 15 first-half points and played with grit. Things then continued to trend in the Lakers’ direction. Murray went scoreless in the third quarter and missed all five of his shots. Jokic collected his third foul. Following a Davis lob and Hachimura’s pair of foul shots, the Lakers held a 94-93 lead with 7:49 left.
Denver then scored six unanswered points with consecutive 3s in between a Lakers foul and missed shot. After a timeout, James lamented the Lakers “never got back into rhythm.” The Nuggets then closed out the rest of the game on a 26-14 run. The Lakers missed 10 of their 13 shots. And Jokic scored 15 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter.
“You can’t have self-inflicted wounds, whether it’s turnovers, whether it’s giving up offensive rebounds, silly fouls that helps them get to the bonus quicker,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “You’ve got to be extremely, extremely disciplined.”
The Lakers actually had shown discipline, but only in waves. The Lakers won the rebounding fight (45-39), but they often featured three-guard lineups that neither had the size to contend with Jokic or the speed to stop the Nuggets from deep (17-for-41). The Lakers hustled on defense, but only forced five turnovers. The Lakers showed strong ball movement, but became wildly inconsistent from the perimeter (10-for-32). While Reaves (3-for-5), Lonnie Walker IV (2-for-4) made timely 3s, James (3-for-9), Russell (1-for-6) and Dennis Schroder (0-for-2) misfired way too many times.
Overall, the Lakers showed overall cracks in their identity.
Ham described James as “good to go” entering Game 3 despite missing all 10 of his 3s in Games 1 and 2, while looking fatigued. Throughout Game 3, James continued to show his limitations. He competed, but still showed exhaustion. He still tried to play the right way with his points (23), assists (12) and rebounding (seven), but he settled for too many open 3s.
“It’s time to go right back home and start to refuel and start the treatment process and recovery process and get ready for Monday,” James said. “My mindset is always locked in as if it’s Game 1.”
That mindset may not be enough. The Lakers immediately benefitted from Russell’s arrival with his sharp playmaking and chemistry with the Lakers’ two stars. Yet, Russell finished with only three points while shooting 1-for-8 from the field and 1-for-6 from 3-point range in Game 3. Though he has made some key 3s in other regular-season games and post-season contests, he has fared poorly in Game 1 (0-for-3) and Game 2 (1-for-5).
“All good looks,” Ham said. “He just has to remain aggressive.”
Maybe that changes the outcome on a few more shots. Only problem: the Nuggets have too much depth for the Lakers to handle. Despite their up-and-down play, Murray (37 points, seven rebounds, seven assists) and Jokic (24 points, eight assists, six rebounds) settled on a two-man game in crunchtime. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (17), Bruce Brown (15) and Michael Porter Jr. (14) also cracked double figures. And Aaron Gordon pleased the Nuggets with his hustle plays.
Though the Lakers have fielded a dramatically better roster since the trade deadline, their new pieces showed various limitations. Hachimura has become a break-out role player, but his 13 points came on 5-for-12 shooting. Russell neither hit shots nor defended with much success. Vanderbilt (two points on 1-for-4) played effectively in waves to slow down Murray, but not the same level of effectiveness as he did earlier in the season. Beasley only played in mop-up duty. And Bamba has missed the past eight playoff games with a left ankle injury.
The Lakers can spend as much as time as they can before Game 4 with making strategic adjustments and resting their bodies. That wasn’t enough in Game 3. So why should things play out differently in Game 4 and beyond?
The Lakers surely don’t think that way after dismissing skepticism about their playoff fortunes after laboring in 13th place in the Western Conference before the trade deadline. Neither does James, who helped the Cleveland Cavaliers overcome three 0-2 series deficits in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals (Detroit), 2016 NBA Finals (Golden State) and 2018 Eastern Conference Finals (Boston).
“That’s the only mindset for me,” James said.
Yet, the Lakers only have to rewatch Game 3 to explain why it seems unlikely they could avoid the same outcome in Game 4. It appears the Lakers have simply maxed out on their potential and energy toward the end of an overachieving season.
Mark Medina covers the NBA for The Sporting Tribune. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.