LOS ANGELES — With the Lakers’ defense scrambling midway through the fourth quarter of Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, Bruce Brown caught a swing pass from Michael Porter Jr. in the right corner and swished an uncontested 3-pointer.
As he turned to run backward, Brown hit the “Freeze” celebration — a gesture that unified the Lakers’ locker room during their improbable second-half rally — toward Los Angeles’ bench.
The deflating sequence signified how this Western Conference finals series has played out: Denver being one step ahead, Los Angeles desperately trying to solve an unsolvable problem, and, ultimately, the Nuggets making a timely shot seemingly on command.
“That was the game,” LeBron James said of Brown’s basket.
That was also likely the series — and the Lakers’ 2022-23 season.
Brown’s shot came amid a 13-0 Denver run midway through the fourth quarter that sealed a 119-108 Game 3 victory at Crypto.com Arena on Saturday to give the Nuggets a 3-0 series lead. No team has ever come back from a 3-0 playoff series deficit in NBA history (0-149). The Lakers as a franchise have never even forced a Game 5 when trailing 3-0, going 0-8 in these scenarios, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
“Circumstances are what they are,” Lakers head coach Darvin Ham said. “Difficult, but not impossible.”
Only the circumstances appear impossible, not just because of the unprecedented history that would need to occur, but because of the undeniable gap between these two teams through the first 144 minutes of this series.
No matter what the Lakers have thrown at the Nuggets, Denver has figured out an answer. Double teams. Drop coverage. Switching. The James-Davis pick-and-roll. Hunting Jamal Murray defensively. Hunting Nikola Jokić
defensively. None of it has rattled Denver for long.
The Nuggets have cracked the Lakers in the same way the Lakers cracked the Grizzlies and Warriors. They’re bigger, more physically imposing, and relentless. Even though all three games have come down to the fourth quarter, Denver has always appeared steady and in control.
Jokić (27.0 points, 14.7 rebounds and 11.3 assists for the series) and Murray (35.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists) have been the series’ two best players — something that’s never happened against a LeBron James- and Anthony Davis-led Lakers team.
The Lakers’ past came back to haunt them on Saturday — just like it did in Game 2, to some extent. Los Angeles has exerted remarkable effort over these last few months, playing with a playoff-life intensity since this group was constructed at the Feb. 9 trade deadline. They overcame a 2-10 start and were the No. 13 seed until late February. They won their first Play-In Tournament game and then dispatched Memphis and Golden State despite being road underdogs.
But their extraneous endeavors took a physical and mental toll — one that is finally catching up to them. They were running on fumes in the second half of Game 2. That continued into Game 3 when their season basically ended after their tank emptied.
The one thing the Lakers could fall back on after their 0-2 deficit was heading home, where they were 7-0 in the postseason and had won nine straight games overall. But the Nuggets spoiled that advantage, seizing a double-digit lead early in the first quarter that they’d maintain throughout the game, only momentarily relinquished at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
Rui Hachimura offered an honest assessment of the Nuggets’ edges over the Lakers.
“They are just bigger than us,” Hachimura said. “… We are smaller than them, so they can just shoot over us.”
Murray, who picked up where he left off in the fourth quarter of Game 2, scored 17 points in the first quarter and 30 points in the first half. At one point in the first quarter, Murray’s point total nearly matched the Lakers’. He finally cooled off in the second half, scoring seven points on 2-for-9 shooting, but his play humbled the Crypto.com Arena crowd, which had been excited to host its first conference finals game since 2010.
Jarred Vanderbilt and Dennis Schröder tried to pressure and mirror Murray’s movements, but he cooked both of them.
“Dennis and Vando, they tried, but he’s a hell of a player,” Ham said. “And once he gets rolling, it doesn’t matter who is in front of him.”
Jokić didn’t even score until late in the second quarter, struggling with foul trouble and the Lakers crowding him in the paint, but he finished what Murray started. He scored 15 points on 5-for-7 shooting in the fourth, finishing with 24 points and eight assists.
The Nuggets’ supporting cast stepped up yet again, with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (17 points, two steals), Porter (14 points, 10 rebounds, six assists) and Brown (15 points, five rebounds and five assists) making crucial plays in the second half and crunch-time.
“I think it’s been the timely shots by their role players,” James said of the difference in the series. “… That’s allowed them to kind of have the edge.”
The same couldn’t be said for the Lakers.
Anthony Davis (28 points and 18 rebounds), James (23 points, seven rebounds and 12 assists) and Austin Reaves (23 points, seven rebounds and five assists) carried the offense, as they have during the postseason run. But other than Hachimura (13 points and six rebounds), there weren’t many notable contributions from the role players.
D’Angelo Russell struggled for the third consecutive game, scoring three points on 1-for-8 shooting and remaining a glaring defensive target for Denver’s offense. Through three games, Russell has 21 points on 8-for-27 shooting (2-for-14 on 3s) for the series. That’s nowhere close to enough offensive production from a player making over $30 million.
The Lakers have been outscored by 53 points in the 79 minutes he’s played. This series has been such an all-around disaster for him that it seems reasonable to question if the impending free agent is capable of being the team’s lead guard moving forward.
“All good looks,” Ham said. “All good looks. He just has to remain aggressive. All good looks.”
When asked what he needs to change in his approach to be more effective, aside from just making more shots, Russell offered up a non-answer.
“For me?” Russell said. “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know. I really don’t. I don’t know. I’ll try to figure it out.”
The starting group of Davis, James, Vanderbilt, Reaves and Russell isn’t working. Denver isn’t guarding Vanderbilt, and they’re successfully targeting Russell defensively. The Lakers were minus-7 in the 12 minutes the group played in Game 3 — a deficit that put Los Angeles behind early in both halves. The Lakers are down to six playable players — and three of those are coming off the bench (Schröder, Hachimura and Lonnie Walker IV).
With Los Angeles down 3-0, this isn’t the time for politics or feelings. Both players should be moved to the bench. Vanderbilt is at least providing reliable on-ball defense against Murray (at least in comparison with the alternatives). Russell has yet to contribute on either end of the floor in a meaningful way in this series. Hachimura and Schröder make the most sense to replace them, though the Lakers also had success in Game 3 with Walker IV alongside Reaves, who is capable of handling point-guard duties.
Adjusting the starting lineup again this late into the series might be a moot point. But Ham clearly made two costly miscalculations in this series — starting the three-guard lineup in Game 1 (Reaves, Russell and Schröder) and maintaining the same starting group for Game 3 (and the second half of Game 3).
Afterward, no Laker could point to a reason for optimism — an adjustment, a glimpse of positivity from Game 3 — just that the series technically wasn’t over yet and they still have another home game.
James, whose teams have come back from down 3-1 in the NBA Finals and from 2-0 in the conference finals twice, is confident that his team’s belief in pulling off the impossible is still strong.
“I mean, it should be,” James said. “I hope so. I can’t speak for the guys right now because I don’t know what’s going on through all their minds right now. But I still do.”
James shared the message he conveyed to his teammates postgame, many of whom have never been this deep into the playoffs.
“Just got to get one,” James said of the strategy to make a comeback. “Just one at a time. Just focus on Game 4, and that’s all you can really think about.”
The Lakers will hold a film session on Sunday, hoping to figure out a way to slow Denver’s unstoppable offense. They’re trying to avoid the fate of 91 of the 149 teams that have been in their position: being swept. Only three teams in NBA history have ever forced a Game 7 after being down 3-0 in a series.
A Los Angeles squad that has already pulled off the unthinkable, being the first team that was eight games under .500 at any point in the season to advance to the conference finals and the second No. 7 seed to advance that far, is going to attempt to summon the wherewithal to keep their season alive in Game 4 on Monday.
“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.”
(Photo of Nikola Jokić and the Lakers: Harry How/Getty Images)