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Lakers’ struggles against Nuggets continue as Denver takes commanding 3-0 series lead

Lakers' struggles against Nuggets continue as Denver takes commanding 3-0 series lead

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Lakers knew exactly what openings the Denver Nuggets would have to provide in order for them to register a win in this first-round series, and could’ve scripted it perfectly.

Force the turnovers, feed off the energy of the home crowd, and see if the Nuggets shooters miss perimeter shots with flying arms and limbs running at them.

It’s been a likely game plan for nearly two years, but for some reason it’s a code they can’t crack. And come Saturday evening, they’ll be cracking open travel itineraries for the summer because their off-season will be underway.

The Nuggets wore down the Lakers on Thursday night at Crypto.com Arena with a 112-105 win to take a commanding 3-0 lead in their best-of-seven series — the 11th straight win the Nuggets have registered against their foes.

In NBA history, no team has come back from that deficit.

Commanding.

That’s what Thursday looked like, even as the Lakers tried to gin up an emotional surge in their first home game in 16 days. The structural flaws of the Laker roster is clear, unmistakable but the reason they put themselves in position for even the most delusional Laker optimists is because LeBron James and Anthony Davis apply force.

And there’s just enough shooting, playmaking and defense from the supporting players to fill in the blanks. Instead, the Lakers were shooting blanks even while the champion Nuggets provided them with enough reason to play hard, to make things interesting.

Entering the fourth quarter, the Lakers were just one of 14 from 3-point range. By the time Taurean Prince hit the next one, it was at the 7:58 mark — and the Nuggets holding a 12-point lead.

It’s been a bugaboo, the inconsistent shooting despite the numbers that trended upward when the Lakers finished on a 15-3 flurry to claim the seventh seed in the West. But even their strength didn’t feel so powerful. It felt, well, forced.

“The regular season and postseason are two different games, different situations,” James said. “What happens in the regular season builds habits. But the game totally changes in the postseason.”

The Los Angeles Lakers seem to have no answers for the defending champion Denver Nuggets. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

The game turned in the third quarter, a constant theme in this series, when Nikola Jokić picked up his third foul early. The Nuggets had already taken the lead but the Lakers were sensing an opportunity to put the presumptive Most Valuable Player on the bench with a fourth. However, it backfired.

Consecutive turnovers from Davis and then another one by James sapped all the momentum the Lakers could’ve gathered, and before they could blink the Lakers were down 10.

“We gotta do a better job of staying focused, staying positive through it all,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “You have those disappointing moments, we call them disappointment lags, that disappointment can spill over for two, three, four possessions and see that someone makes a mistake, they drop their heads, jog back instead of sprinting back. You have to fight through all of that. They’re defending champions for a reason.”

It was a similar script to games in Denver. Davis dominates early and then fades late — whether it was altitude, not enough attitude or too much responsibility in anchoring a defense that would be wobbly without him — it happened again.

After Davis’ comments following Game 2 where he said players don’t often know what they’re doing, the pressure was on him to show up and at least play Jokić to a draw, if not outright win the matchup.

Thirty of his game-high 33 points came in the first 36 minutes, but he found hands and bodies all around because no one was a threat from anywhere, and it was bound to take its toll. That, along with the heavyweight Jokić leaning on him for rounds on end made the legs weak even if the spirit was willing.

Jokić worked himself into a 24-point, 15-rebound night, and added five assists. He didn’t have to exert but so much energy on this night, but like the rest of this team, they know exactly how long they have to play at full concentration in order to put an opponent away.

Austin Reaves finished with 22, but so many came after the game was out of reach late in the fourth. When it counted, Reaves and the much-maligned D’Angelo Russell combined to shoot four for 18, with Russell going scoreless.

Russell’s rhythm from Game 2 didn’t transfer over, and they were facing a team that very clearly has gotten in their heads. James has been the boogeyman for so many franchises over the course of his career, and he’s had a few monsters in his closet — the most recent being Jokić and these Nuggets.

It’s mental blocks and self-fulfilling prophecies working here, and James has said the Lakers would need to play near-perfect basketball to beat the Nuggets.

“We’ve (me and Davis) played together six years, we’ve been to the mountaintop and been close to the mountaintop and played a lot of games,” James said. “We know what it takes to win, what it takes to win a championship and how damn near perfect you have to be.”

“That’s not so crazy to obtain. I’ve been apart of it four times.”

James did call the Nuggets a team with no offensive flaws, even if he couldn’t rank them among the most difficult teams he’s had to play against through his 21-year career. Aaron Gordon repeatedly ducked in for offensive rebounds and paint touches and scores — many of them catching James falling asleep on the backside of the defense — that Jokić didn’t even lead the Nuggets in scoring.

It was Gordon who had 29 along with 15 rebounds, and Michael Porter Jr. did damage in the fourth with 10 of his 20 in the period, hitting contested shots when the Lakers had a glimmer of hope.

James did his usual, with 26 points, nine assists and six rebounds in 42 minutes. He had a flurry of activity early, including a steal and dunk that gave the Lakers an 8-0 lead, but it was going to be difficult to lead the offense, stay alert on defense and play so many minutes to keep his team afloat.

It was a matter of time before the Lakers succumbed to the pace and depth of the Nuggets. It can come from anywhere, at any time. That’s fatiguing through the course of a playoff series — or years.

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