LOS ANGELES — Although the Los Angeles Lakers’ late-season transformation is one of this NBA season’s best stories, LeBron James and his teammates finally appear to be running out of steam in the Western Conference finals.
They’ve also finally run into an opponent capable of making sure this story doesn’t have a completely happy ending.
After looking weary and mistake-prone in Denver during their first back-to-back losses in over two months, the Lakers face a must-win Game 3 Saturday.
Los Angeles has been on a prolonged roll ever since the trade deadline, going 27-12 while surging into the playoff picture, winning a play-in game and knocking out two higher-seeded opponents in six games. But that roll has finally been slowed by Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and the respect-hungry Nuggets, whose superior late-game play was the reason they’re up 2-0.
“This is not the NCAA Tournament,” James said. “It’s the first team to four wins. We have an opportunity to go home and play great basketball and hold serve. Until a team beats you four times, you always have an opportunity to come out of it. So that’s the confidence that we should have. I know it’s going to be a tough hill to climb up, but we still have an opportunity to play the best basketball of the series in Game 3.”
The Lakers insist they’re not as tired as they looked for stretches of both games in Denver, when they settled for too many jumpers, ran the court less effectively and lost a fraction of their defensive intensity. James and Anthony Davis both say the fatigue of this relentless two-month sprint toward title contention isn’t finally too much for a team that altered half of its roster just three months ago.
“If you’re not tired in the postseason…,” James said after LA’s 108-103 loss in Game 2. “I mean, everybody’s tired.”
But James’ weariness appears to be evident in his jump shot — and in his reliance on that shot instead of the more physically demanding task of driving to the hoop. The top scorer in NBA history went 0 for 6 on 3-pointers in Game 2, making him 0 for 10 in the series. He has also missed 19 consecutive 3-pointers in the fourth quarter over the Lakers’ last 11 playoff games.
On top of the fatigue from the heavy workload for his 38-year-old body, James also sprained his left ankle in the third quarter of Game 2, although said he would be fine for Game 3.
Davis is prone to offensive inconsistency, and the stress of leading the Lakers’ defensive effort against mighty Denver may have affected him — although he insists it didn’t. What’s clear is that Davis’ 18-point performance on 4-of-15 shooting in Game 2 isn’t enough from the Lakers’ franchise big man, particularly after his 40-point effort in Game 1, when the Lakers’ defense was much worse.
The Lakers are hoping for a big boost from their success-hungry home fans when they get back to their downtown arena, where they’re 7-0 at home since the regular season ended.
“The higher the levels you get to, you’re going to face much, much tougher teams,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “No disrespect to Memphis or Golden State, but (Denver) has been at the top of the food chain for a reason. Not just this year, but the last few years. So we’ve definitely got our work cut out for us, but we’re going to get better from this, as we always do, and we’ll bounce back on our home floor.”
The Lakers had lost back-to-back games just once — in mid-March — since the trade deadline. Their late-season turnaround is still stunning after the additions of D’Angelo Russell, Rui Hachimura, Jarred Vanderbilt and Malik Beasley along with the departures of Russell Westbrook, Patrick Beverley and Kendrick Nunn, opening up playing time for vital supporting players Austin Reaves and Dennis Schröder.
But all that quick work might not be enough to overcome the steady togetherness of the Nuggets, who have handled the Lakers much better than their own inferiority complex.
Coach Michael Malone curiously punctuated their gritty Game 2 victory with sarcastic jabs about the basketball world’s supposed ignorance of two-time NBA MVP Jokic’s talents, along with criticism of a “national narrative” he believed was too impressed by the Lakers’ Game 1 rally.
The winningest team in the West is making its fifth consecutive playoff appearance after its sixth straight winning season, yet Malone appears to be paying close attention to television’s talking heads while pounding the nobody-believes-in-us narrative that permeates sports, even for professional powerhouses like the Nuggets and the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.
Perhaps that’s because these Nuggets have never been here before: They’re as close to the NBA Finals as this franchise has ever been, up 2-0 on a 17-time NBA champion franchise with a global brand and the sport’s most accomplished active player.
Eliminating LeBron and the Lakers would be a signature achievement for this Denver group, and it has a chance to all but lock up the achievement with a win in Game 3.
“It’s definitely going to be hostile there,” Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. said. “They still feel like they’re in this series, obviously. It’s the first to four. It’s not the first to two. They’re not going to just roll over, and now they’re back in LA.”
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