Nuggets again show Lakers they know the business of winning

While the Lakers were remaking themselves at the trade deadline and battling back from a clueless 2-10 start that dropped them into the depths of the Western Conference, the Denver Nuggets were quietly and consistently taking care of the business of earning the No. 1 playoff seed.

While the Lakers were learning each other’s tendencies, while they evolved from a group of players thrown together on short notice and became a multifaceted team that could count on role players to step up and support LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Nuggets were refining a core that was unflappable, versatile and efficient. And good.

The heralded New Orleans Pelicans faded. The Phoenix Suns flamed brightly for a while and then burned out. The Golden State Warriors couldn’t win on the road. The Clippers were, well, the Clippers, undercut by injuries despite load-managing themselves into a pretzel. The Lakers, reborn after the trade deadline, won a play-in game, eliminated the immature Memphis Grizzlies, and took out a surprisingly ragged Warriors team that never really found its stride.

Through it all, the Nuggets stayed above the chaos below them. They’ve shown that same confidence against the Lakers, making plays and runs that have quieted the chaos within the first three games of the West finals while taking a 3-0 stranglehold in the best-of-seven series.

Faced with a one-point deficit with 7 minutes 48 seconds left in the fourth quarter Saturday, the Nuggets launched a 13-0 run that led them to a 119-108 victory and sent fans at Arena streaming toward the exits before the final horn mournfully sounded. “It’s a one-game series for us,” James said, and that one game is scheduled for Monday.

The Lakers have been let down by members of their supporting cast in this series, most notably the continued poor shooting of point guard D’Angelo Russell, who was one for eight from the field Saturday. Maybe they’ve been exhausted as a team by their long scramble to get back into contention for at least a play-in spot, and they’ve stumbled to the end of the road. They’ve given all they have to give. That was good enough for them to get this far, but hasn’t been enough against the powerful Nuggets.

“Two and 10, 13th place, climbing uphill basically all season to get to this point, and it’s the same thing here,” Davis said. “You know, obviously it’s a steeper climb being down 0-3. But we are going to keep taking it one game at a time and try to get better and come out with a win on Monday.”

No NBA team has erased an opponent’s 3-0 lead in a playoff series, though it has happened four times in the NHL — most recently by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Kings over San Jose in 2014 — and once in Major League Baseball, when the 2004 Boston Red Sox rallied to beat the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series.

The Lakers will have to make history or they’ll be history. It’s a forbidding task. The Nuggets have been the better team. More complete. Smarter.

“We talked about it after Game 2 in Denver, how we wanted to come here and make this a business trip as far as, like, trying to come in here and get two games and not just one,” Denver guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a member of the Lakers’ 2020 COVID bubble championship team, said after his 17-point performance Saturday.

“We came out very professionally and got it done. Continuing to thrive with this team. I love this team and how we continue to fight for what we want.”

The Nuggets overcame a subpar, five-point first half by star center Nikola Jokic, who got into foul trouble, and survived a second-half falloff by Jamal Murray, who scored 30 in the first half, to leave the Lakers in the dust.

“I learn a lot about this team every time we play,” Caldwell-Pope said. “We have that resilience, that dog mentality, where no matter if we’re up, down, we’re going to continue to fight and play our game. We do it at a high level, and we’ve got to continue to do that throughout the rest of these games.”

The Lakers have made adjustments that haven’t gained them much. The Nuggets have matched or topped them at every turn.

Caldwell-Pope, asked when he thought the Nuggets might be a championship-caliber team, said he sensed the great possibilities early.

“From training camp, since we’ve been playing together and just throughout the whole season. We’re No. 1 in the West for a reason,” he said. “I believed it from the jump that we could win a championship. That was everybody’s mindset. We knew how we could jell together and play together. We just wanted to continue to just play hard, together and just continue to just do great.

“We’re the underdogs. We don’t get enough credit for what we do. Like I said, we’re No. 1 in the West for a reason. Not being talked about a lot, we take that personal. We just use that energy, continue to prove everybody wrong.”

What do the Lakers do now? Punt? They can’t suddenly become bigger, can’t make up for the cohesion they didn’t have time to develop. They haven’t been able to beat Denver at its own game of making the crucial, game-turning plays when the score is close.

“Obviously there’s something there that, you know, swings in their favor. But to pinpoint it, if I knew that answer, you know, I feel like we would voice that and change it,” Lakers guard Austin Reaves said. “Like I said, really good team. Tip your hat. But, you know, we’ll get ready for Monday.”

Davis said the Lakers would spend Sunday analyzing film with a focus on getting better late in the game at both ends of the court.

”Take it one game at a time. You know, come Monday, leave it out on the floor, and try to get a win,” he said. “Take it to Game 5, Game 6, Game 7. That’s all you can really do.”

It’s a nice vision but unlikely because the Nuggets have shown so far they’re very good at taking care of the business of winning.