LOS ANGELES (AP) — Nikola Jokic was far from his usual dominant self while mired in foul trouble, and Jamal Murray cooled off after his scorching first half. The Denver Nuggets' big early lead disappeared entirely in the fourth quarter of Game 3, and the Lakers' home crowd was in a frenzy.
The Nuggets weathered every setback and calmly, methodically took control with a poise worthy of champions.
With one more victory, they'll finally get the chance to play for their first rings.
Murray scored 37 points, Jokic added 24 points and eight assists and the Nuggets rolled to a 3-0 lead in the Western Conference finals with a 119-108 victory over Los Angeles on Saturday night.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 12 of his 17 points in the second half against his former team for the top-seeded Nuggets, who have never been this close to the NBA Finals in 47 years in the league. Denver is making its fifth straight playoff appearance, and the ultimate stage is now just one win away.
“I learn a lot about this team every time we play,” Caldwell-Pope said. “We have that dog mentality where no matter if we’re up, down, we’re going to continue to fight and play our game, and do it at a high level. We’re going to continue to do that for the rest of these games.”
Denver blew a 14-point lead in Game 3, but made a decisive 13-0 run in the fourth quarter to snap the Lakers' nine-game home winning streak since March 26, including seven straight victories since the regular season ended. The Nuggets excelled down the stretch with Murray and Jokic repeatedly running a two-man pick-and-roll game suggested by “Coach Jokic,” according to coach Michael Malone.
“This group is capable of doing great things, and they believe,” Malone said. “Belief is a very powerful thing.”
No team has rallied from a 3-0 playoff series deficit in NBA history. Game 4 is Monday night in Los Angeles.
“I can’t speak for the guys right now because I don’t know what’s going through all their minds, but I still (believe),” said LeBron James, who had 23 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds. “So 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. My mindset is always locked in.”
Anthony Davis had 28 points and 18 rebounds for the seventh-seeded Lakers, who hadn't lost three straight games since early February. Los Angeles' prolonged, desperate surge ever since the trade deadline has finally run out of steam against the powerhouse Nuggets, who have won five consecutive playoff games.
“They've been at the top of the food chain for a reason, and have a plethora of guys that can hurt you, as was on full display tonight,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “But you know, circumstances are what they are. Difficult, but not impossible.”
James hit three 3-pointers after starting the series 0 for 13 from distance, and Austin Reaves added 23 points and seven rebounds. But Rui Hachimura was the only other Lakers scorer to crack double figures with 13 points, and they couldn't counter the Nuggets' balanced effort down the stretch.
“Our backs have been against the wall (for) probably about the last two months, maybe more than that since the trade deadline," Reaves said. “Swinging, throwing punches to fight to get to this opportunity. ... We can either come out Monday and go home, or we can fight for another day. And with the group of guys that we’ve got, I know what that answer will be.”
Jokic's streak of four consecutive triple-doubles ended in a fairly quiet game for the two-time MVP, who got his fourth foul in the third quarter. But Murray scored 17 points in a dynamic first quarter following his 23-point fourth quarter two nights ago, and he had 30 points by halftime of Game 3.
Bruce Brown scored 15 points and hit a key 3-pointer down the stretch for the Nuggets before Jokic all but iced it on a 3-pointer with 3:17 to play.
The Lakers’ passionate fans turned out in force for the 17-time champion franchise’s first conference finals games at home since 2010. Los Angeles tried desperately to get back in the series, with James playing 43 minutes after spraining his left ankle in Game 2 on top of his already sore right foot.
But the Nuggets’ flight to the coast didn’t cool off Murray in the slightest: The Canadian guard poured in 17 points in the first quarter and had 26 midway through the second. Reaves racked up 15 points, three assists and three rebounds in the second quarter alone to keep LA in it.
Hachimura’s 3-pointer early in the fourth gave the Lakers their first lead since the opening minutes, but the Nuggets took charge again in a rally highlighted by Brown’s 3-pointer with 7:02 to play, after which he taunted the Lakers’ bench with Los Angeles’ own “Freeze” 3-point celebration.
D’Angelo Russell had another rough game for the Lakers, scoring three points on 1-of-8 shooting in 20 minutes. The Lakers’ biggest addition in their trade deadline transformation has just 21 points in the series.
Nuggets: Aaron Gordon had seven points in 32 minutes. ... Michael Porter Jr. had 14 points and 10 rebounds, capped by a 3-pointer in the final 90 seconds.
Lakers: Backup C Mo Bamba missed his ninth consecutive game with a sore left ankle. The team is hopeful Bamba can play at some point in this series. ... Fans near courtside included Jack Nicholson, Eddie Murphy, Denzel Washington, Jake Gyllenhaal, Andy Garcia, Dyan Cannon, Ken Jeong, Joel McHale, LA Kings captain Anze Kopitar and defenseman Drew Doughty, and Khalil Mack, Derwin James and Sebastian Joseph-Day from the Los Angeles Chargers’ defense.