• LAL 114 – DEN 108

    On the backs of Anthony Davis, LeBron James and their 60 combined points, the Los Angeles Lakers took a commanding 3-1 series lead with a 114-108 victory over the Denver Nuggets. AD set the tone and came out scorching hot scoring the team’s first 10 points on a perfect 5 for 5 shooting. It has become a trend for the Lakers to intentionally get their stars rolling early in games as it was James in Game 2 who scored the first 12 for LA. After squeaking out a win in that Game 2 and suffering a brutal loss in Game 3, Frank Vogel knew it was time to make an adjustment to his game plan, and moving Dwight Howard into the starting lineup was just the spark the Lakers needed. In his third start of the season, Howard was active on the glass and in the paint and finished the first quarter with eight points and eight rebounds. Another wrinkle Vogel added was the implementation of a zone, that was not as successful, and Denver was able to exploit the open areas and knock down a few corner threes and work their way into the paint for easy buckets at the rim. Jamal Murray, who has made the leap to full super stardom, put on quite the show with his offensive performance throughout the night, topped off by an acrobatic Jordanesque reverse layup over LeBron that will be on highlight reels for years to come. Murray carried the Nuggets in the first half, scoring 16 points before heading into the locker room down 60-55 at the break. His running mate, Nikola Jokic, was stymied by the Lakers D, and was passive in the first two quarters, scoring 10 points on only six shot attempts. Murray and Jokic have become only the second set of players in the history of the league under the age of 25 to average more than 25 points per game in the playoffs. AD ended up hitting his first seven shots and finished the first half with 19 points, and for the second straight game he did not grab a rebound in the first 24 minutes, marking the first time in his career (and probably his life) this has ever occurred. Howard was there to clean up what AD could not get to and had a double-double in the first half with 11 points and 10 rebounds, before being played off the floor later in the game. Denver shot a blistering 59% from the field in the first half but the Lakers were able to make up the shooting discrepancy on the offensive glass, scoring 18 second chance points, more than they have had throughout any of the previous three games.

    If we have learned anything so far this postseason, it is that this Denver Nuggets squad is never out of a game, or a series. Murray in the pick-and-roll became the go-to for Denver and the Laker big men who got switched onto him, especially Howard, struggled to make any stops. An 11-4 run to end the third quarter, keyed by two Michael Porter Jr. step back threes, cut the Denver deficit to three as they went into the final quarter down 87-84. LeBron took matters into his own hands down the stretch and controlled the game on both sides of the floor. Although it was an ugly shooting night for James, 7 of 18 from the field with only one make outside of the paint, he continuously drove to the rim and got to the free throw line, where he knocked down 11 of 14 attempts. The Lakers had complained to the league after Game 3 about the lack of foul calls against LeBron and whatever they had to say, the officials listened. The more controversial calls, or lack thereof, for LeBron came on the defensive end. After Murray had been torching anyone who stood in front of him, James stepped up to the challenge, but fouled him on three separate plays, only one of which was actually called. Murray continued his torrid shooting stretch in “winning time” and is now shooting 58% from the field, 64% from deep and a perfect 100% from the line in the fourth quarter and overtime this postseason. It was not enough this time, as the Nuggets could never get over the hump and eventually fell 114-108.

    LeBron finished the game on the verge of a triple-double with 26 points, nine rebounds and eight assists. Davis ended up with 34 points, making 10 of his 15 field goal attempts. After struggling the previous two games “Playoff” Rajon Rondo returned to score 11 points and drop seven dimes off the bench. Rondo’s big-game experience and leadership has showed up in key moments for the Lakers and he has proved to be a critical asset in a reserve role. Murray finished with 32 points and eight assists in the loss, while Jokic had a pedestrian 16 points and seven rebounds. If Denver has any aspirations of fighting their way back into the series Jokic needs to step up in a major way and be the dominant big man, we have seen him be so far this season. Jerami Grant has made the jump from “athletic, defensive-minded, bench guy” to an all-around stud and has continued to play and shoot well, scoring 17 points in just under 43 minutes played.

    For the third straight series Denver trails 3-1 and while we have seen there is no quit in this group, I am not sure they are going to be able to pull off the comeback against a LeBron-led outfit. James has an unblemished record for his career in series in which his team has a 3-1 lead. Although I originally picked the Lakers to win in six, I believe they will be punching their ticket to the Finals on Saturday night.

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