We officially have ourselves a series. The Denver Nuggets picked up an impressive 114-106 Game 3 win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday to cut the Lakers' Western Conference finals lead to 2-1. Jamal Murray was absolutely brilliant all night, nearly putting up a triple-double and hitting big shots in the fourth quarter when the Lakers launched a late comeback bid.
The Lakers were outplayed for most of the night but cut the lead to five early in the third quarter. Denver pulled away after that, however, extending the lead to as many as 18 points in the third before the Lakers launched one final comeback in the fourth quarter.
That's when Murray came to the rescue, sealing the game for Denver. He finished with 28 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds on the night. Nikola Jokic (22 points, 10 rebounds and five assists) had another strong game for the Nuggets, with Jerami Grant coming up with a huge offensive performance, scoring a playoff career-high 26 points. LeBron James (30 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds) and Anthony Davis (27 points) again led the way for the Lakers, with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope adding 12 points int he loss.
Denver will look to ride the momentum and even the series in Game 4 on Thursday. Here are four takeaways from the Nuggets' big Game 3 win.
1. Murray saves the day ... again
There's not much more you can say about Jamal Murray. He dominated Game 3 offensively for the entire night, being patient and orchestrating the offense, but even more impressive was how he responded when the Lakers made their fourth-quarter run. The Nuggets were going absolutely nowhere offensively, somewhat befuddled by a rare zone defense from Los Angeles, when Murray hit a clutch 3-pointer to increase the lead to seven points with just over two minutes remaining. He followed that up with a late-shot clock assist to Paul Millsap for a dunk, then hit an absolute dagger to seal the victory with 53 seconds left.
It's one thing to play loose and free when your team is ahead, but what Murray did was special -- not that we haven't seen it from him before. We all knew the Lakers would go on a run, and so many times in these playoffs alone we've seen teams fold after giving up big leads. Murray simply wouldn't let that happen and saved the Nuggets' season in the process. If they lose, they go down 3-0 and have basically no chance. Instead, they're down 2-1 with all the momentum heading into Game 4. It's hard to think of any player who has improved their stock more than Jamal Murray in these playoffs.
2. Emotional hangover for AD?
If you didn't see Game 3, you'd look at the box score, see Anthony Davis' 27 points and think he had a great game. It's a testament to how great he is that he can put up numbers like that in the Western Conference finals, yet still underperform. Davis, a midrange master for most of the postseason, wasn't hitting his assortment of pull-ups and step-backs on Tuesday, but instead of trying to get to the basket more, he looked largely passive. He didn't even get a single rebound until the fourth quarter and failed to pick up a blocked shot, a pretty good indication that he wasn't quite there with his energy level. Take a look at his Game 3 shot chart below.
Davis was coming off the biggest moment of his NBA career on Sunday, so it's fair to wonder whether he was suffering from a slight emotional hangover in terms of his intensity. It also has a lot to do with Denver's defense, which did a better job of keeping the Lakers out of the paint for a lot of the night. Despite his subpar performance, Davis still put up numbers, which is what great players do. Expect him to come out more aggressively in Game 4.
3. Grant steps up
With Murray and Jokic playing so consistently, all the Nuggets really need is one more player to contribute significantly on any given night. On Tuesday it was Grant, who was absolutely tremendous on both ends of the floor. The 6-8 wing always brings the energy on defense, but he had struggled offensively after the opening-round Utah series, averaging 8.8 points on 36 percent field goals and 26 percent 3-pointers against the Clippers and Lakers.
He broke out of that slump in an impressive way in Game 3, scoring the majority of his career playoff-high 26 points by going to the basket and getting to the free throw line rather than just making 3-pointers. He went 2-for-5 from deep, but he took 12 free throws in Game 3, making 10, after shooting just 18 in the previous nine games combined. Watch how Grant quickly attacks the closeout and seeks contact in the lane. We hadn't seen this a lot from him recently.
Grant isn't going to score 20-plus points every night, but he'll benefit the Nuggets tremendously if he keeps up this level of aggression moving forward in the series.
4. Lakers go cold
The concern over the Lakers' 3-point shooting had largely been eliminated during the postseason so far -- they shot 39 percent from the 3-point line in the first two games against the Nuggets -- but on Tuesday we saw what happens when the shots don't go down. The Lakers went 6-for-26 from deep in Game 3, including 2-for-18 from LeBron, Davis, Danny Green, Rajon Rondo and Alex Caruso combined. The Nuggets, like every team, are focusing so much attention on James and Davis that role players will consistently get clean looks, but none of them are true knock-down shooters (though Caldwell-Pope has certainly looked like one). The Lakers were due for a cold shooting night, and the Nuggets took advantage. We'll see which way things swing in Game 4.