Becoming the first NBA team to overcome a 3-1 series deficit twice in one postseason gave the Denver Nuggets a sense of fearlessness. Their resilience also gave their coach, Michael Malone, a sense of humor.
Asked before the Western Conference finals against the Lakers how he’d get his team into another 3-1 hole in order to inspire players to be at their best, Malone responded with a quick quip. “Well, we actually did petition the league to see if we could just get right to it and start 3-1 down, save everybody a lot of time, catch up to the Eastern Conference, but that was shot down,” he joked.
Be careful what you wish for. Malone and the Nuggets weren’t laughing on Thursday, after their 114-108 loss to the Lakers put them down 3-1 and on the brink of elimination again.
This time, the Nuggets aren’t playing the intriguing but inexperienced Utah Jazz. They’re not facing the self-destructive Clippers. They’re down 3-1 to the seasoned and adaptable Lakers, who added snarl to their front line and a boost on the offensive boards on Thursday when coach Frank Vogel started Dwight Howard at center in place of JaVale McGee.
“He did his job,” Denver center Nikola Jokic said of Howard after being held to a series-low 16 points.
Howard had six offensive rebounds in the first half and was one of six Lakers who hit double figures in points, led by Anthony Davis’ 34 and LeBron James’ 26. The Lakers outrebounded the Nuggets 41-33 and outscored them 25-6 in second-chance points, the two primary areas Malone pointed to as his team’s greatest shortcomings.
“Just too many breakdowns,” Malone said. “This is the Western Conference finals, Game 4, and if you can’t help us on the defensive end, then maybe you shouldn’t be on the floor. We’ve got to be able to lock in and finish it off with a rebound and we just had too many empty possessions on that end tonight.”
Each time the Nuggets came close — they trailed 87-86 early in the fourth quarter and by three with just more than 3 ½ minutes left — the Lakers swatted them away. That 3-1 deficit looms larger for the Nuggets than it did in the first or second rounds.
“Frustrating,” an unusually downcast Jamal Murray said after contributing 32 points, eight assists and a succession of acrobatic, gravity-defying layups in more than 45 minutes. “Don’t know how else to explain it. Not being able to take a lead, it’s frustrating. It’s tough. It’s tough.”
In a move that was strategic and symbolic, 35-year-old James — playing his 253rd career playoff game — asked to guard 23-year-old Murray late in Murray’s 32nd career playoff contest. Murray said he didn’t try to do anything against James that he hadn’t done against other renowned defenders. “Appreciate the respect,” Murray said, “but we’ve got to win the game.”
They didn’t win. But faith never dies for a team that found ways to transform hope into victories in the NBA’s Florida playoff bubble.
“We believe,” Nuggets reserve guard Monte Morris said. “We’ve been here before. There’s no pressure on them. The pressure’s on the Lakers to get the job done right now. We’ve been here before. We’ve just got to do what we do, no pressure on us, play loose, have fun with it, and live with the results.
“There’s no quit in us. We’re high in spirits. We didn’t play our best basketball yet. Today might have been one of our worst performances and we know that we still had a chance to win it. It’s nothing to put our heads down about. We’ve got to watch film, get better, correct it, and come back Saturday ready to play.”
They’re not leaving anything to chance. Remembering that the Lakers spoke to the NBA to say James should have shot more free throws than the two he got in their Game 3 loss and noting that he magically got 14 free throws on Thursday, Malone said he'd speak his own piece to the league.
“They went to the foul line 35 times. I think I’m going to have to go through the proper channels, like they did, to see if we can figure out how we can get some more free throws,” said Malone, whose team had 23 free throws on Thursday.
“Late in the game, I thought Jamal Murray attacked the basket a few times where it appeared to be contact, so we’ll watch the film and we’ll send our clips in. We’ll reach out to the NBA and kind of make our points noted, and whether them going through the proper channels affected tonight or not, I have no idea. The NBA does a great job of listening, and you hope that next game maybe some of those fouls are called.”
The Lakers are one victory from reaching the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010, but Vogel is aware of the Nuggets’ playoff rallies and doesn’t consider that 3-1 lead to be air-tight.
“They are extremely difficult to play against on both sides of the ball. They are well-coached defensively. They have great speed and physicality,” Vogel said. “Obviously, Jamal and [Jokic] are just playing at an extremely high level offensively, as is their supporting cast. The bench has been fantastic. Great respect for this team and definitely know that we have a lot of work to do to finish this series.”
The Nuggets appear to have finally met their match. But Murray, who has played more than 43 minutes in each of the last three games and had three 40-plus minute games against the Clippers, is prepared to play as much as needed. “These are all close games we’re playing. Going to keep battling it out,” he said.
No one expects any less, even if it’s a battle they’re not likely to win.
Elliott reported from Los Angeles.