Lakers vs. Nuggets: Once again, Los Angeles stumbling in the halfcourt and Denver’s figuring things out

The first thing the Denver Nuggets did at their film session on Monday was address the elephant in the room. They watched Anthony Davis‘ game-winning 3-pointer, discussed what went wrong on the play and tried to learn from it. After that, coach Michael Malone’s goal was to show them all the things they could build on. 

“They saw so many positive clips of us doing the right things, which put us in a position to win,” Malone said. “And now we had to do that for more than just a second half. We had to do it for four quarters.”

In Game 3 of the Western Conference finals on Tuesday, the Nuggets didn’t quite accomplish that. “We did it at a high level for three,” Malone said, and that was enough for a 114-106 victory. Denver had a 20-point lead in the final frame, only for the Los Angeles Lakers to storm back on the strength of a 2-3 zone and six consecutive Denver turnovers. 

Malone said the Nuggets will work on their zone offense and taking care of the ball on Wednesday. He also said that this series reminds him of the second round, in which a Los Angeles team blew them out in the opener and they felt they gave one of the first three games away.

Denver would surely prefer not to fall behind 3-1 this time, but there is an encouraging parallel developing. Once again, the Nuggets appear to be improving as the series goes on, figuring out how to play to their identity against a star-studded favorite. Had Davis missed the final shot on Sunday, the Lakers’ stagnant offense would have been a huge story. 

Davis made a bunch of tough shots before the buzzer-beater, but his teammates went 8 for 27 in the second half. While Denver is not known as an elite defensive team, it showed in the Clippers series that it is capable of disrupting a team’s rhythm. When the Nuggets were able to keep the Lakers in the halfcourt, they made sure the stars saw help defenders, zoned up on the weak side, protected the paint and tried to make the role players make plays:

LeBron James shot 2 for 9 in the second half with four turnovers, and generally looked out of sorts in the fourth quarter:

Denver didn’t do anything that other opponents haven’t tried against Los Angeles, but it executed the game plan better than some thought it could. In Game 3, the Nuggets built on that. Here’s James looking indecisive before a travel in the first quarter:

And here’s a bench-heavy Denver lineup scrambling to force a turnover in the second:

In the third, Davis missed a 16-foot runner over two defenders, trying to bait a referee into calling a foul:

In the fourth, James posted up Jamal Murray, but all the Lakers got out of it was a wild, missed floater from Kyle Kuzma:

Before the almost entirely transition-fueled comeback, with 10 seconds on the shot clock, Rajon Rondo settled for a stepback 3 the Nuggets would gladly surrender, leading to a Murray dunk on the other end:

And after the comeback, Rondo took a 3 from about the same spot — it was a little deeper! — with the same amount of time on the shot clock, and with Denver giving him the full Tony Allen treatment:

Los Angeles scored 92.8 points per 100 possessions in the halfcourt in Game 3, according to Cleaning The Glass, only a bit worse than its regular-season mark of 94.4 per 100, which ranked 19th in the league. Typically, the Lakers make up for that with superb defense, transition scoring and rebounding, but they haven’t done that consistently since halftime of Game 2.

Denver is trailing in this series, but, until the zone appeared, it seemed like Murray and Nikola Jokic had all the answers for the Lakers’ defense. The Nuggets knew their Game 1 woes were self-inflicted, and Malone said that, after their Game 2 heartbreak, they felt they had to “right that wrong.” Down 2-1, they’ll still be considered underdogs to make the Finals, but, if they can continue to make Los Angeles play against a set defense, they have every reason to believe.

“Everybody always has us packing our bags and ready to go, but we’re not ready to go,” Malone said. “For some reason, we love this bubble.”

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