For the Lakers and Darvin Ham, another blown lead to Nuggets leaves more questions than answers about future

For the Lakers and Darvin Ham, another blown lead to Nuggets leaves more questions than answers about future

LOS ANGELES — As LeBron James took off from the dotted circle and dunked, the crowd roared at decibels that hadn’t been heard at Crypto.com Arena this season.

The Los Angeles Lakers stormed out to an 8-0 lead over the Denver Nuggets in less than two minutes. The building was rocking. Dozens of celebrities filled courtside seats. Los Angeles was still breathing in their first-round NBA playoff series against the Nuggets. After blowing two leads in their losses in Games 1 and 2, they were building another early one.

And, as has been the case in the two previous games in this series, it was only a matter of time until the Nuggets chipped away at the Lakers’ lead and secured the game. Denver beat Los Angeles 112-105 to take a commanding 3-0 series lead and win for the 11th straight time over the Lakers.

By the end of the night, the air in the arena was gone. The Lakers’ fate was sealed. Boos rained down on the team. A segment of fans started “Fire Darvin!” chants twice. D’Angelo Russell, after arguably his worst performance against the Nuggets in a long line of stinkers, declined to speak to the media.

The Nuggets effectively ended the Lakers’ season on Thursday night. No team has ever come back from a 3-0 series deficit. And these Lakers aren’t going to be the first team to do so against these Nuggets. At this point, it’s just a matter of if this is a four- or five-game series.

It’s tough,” head coach Darvin Ham said. “Got to figure out a way to get one on Saturday to stay alive.”

It’s unclear if that’s possible for these Lakers, though. They’ve held double-digit leads and halftime leads in all three losses. But the Nuggets have an answer for anything the Lakers throw at them. It’s the same game on an endless loop. And now they’ve even beaten the Lakers at their own game, winning the points in the paint in two of three games and at the free-throw line in two of three games.

Denver’s physicality has stood out in the matchup. They have a size advantage at all five starting positions. That, coupled with their knack for offensive rebounds, has helped them dominate L.A. even when their shots haven’t been falling (especially for Jamal Murray).

The Lakers aren’t making excuses, and acknowledge they need to try harder and are being outworked.

“I think Denver’s just beating us, to be honest,” Austin Reaves said. “You can talk about adjustments, you can talk about this and that, but at the end of the day, we got to go put our best foot forward in basketball games. You can talk about all the, everything else outside the talks of everything, but at the end of the day, you got to man up and go win games.”

For the second straight game, the Lakers only had three players in double figures with one role player (in this game Reaves) supporting Anthony Davis and James offensively. Davis had 33 points (14-of-23 shooting) and 15 rebounds. James posted 26 points (12-of-20 shooting), six rebounds and nine assists. And Reaves had 22 points (8-of-17 shooting), five rebounds and four steals.

James and Davis combined to shoot 69.4 percent. The rest of the Lakers shot just 38.3 percent combined (and only 30 percent if Reaves’ performance is removed).

That shooting number notably includes D’Angelo Russell, who went scoreless on 0-of-7 shooting (and 0-of-6 3-point shooting). Russell has now had two duds in the series, and six out of the Lakers’ seven playoff matchups with the Nuggets over the past two seasons. He only played 24 minutes, including nine in the second half and four in the fourth quarter.

“It’s unfortunate, man,” Ham said. “He had some good looks that he just didn’t knock down. It’s as simple as that. Similar to Game 1. He was able to bounce back in Game 2 and I expect him to bounce back in Game 4.”

Rui Hachimura also struggled, scoring five points on 2-of-4 shooting. He only played 28 minutes as the Lakers downsized and relied more on their bench of Taurean Prince, Spencer Dinwiddie and Gabe Vincent.

In contrast, Nikola Jokić (24 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists) and Murray (22 points, five rebounds and nine assists) had plenty of help. Aaron Gordon posted a playoff career-high 29 points and 15 rebounds and Michael Porter Jr. added 20 points and 10 rebounds.

“They have a championship confidence,” Ham said. “That starting group has been together for a long time. Their net rating is off the charts as a starting group. They had guys step up and make plays.”

Before the series, James said the Lakers needed to play “mistake-free basketball” to have a shot against the Nuggets. When asked if he feels like that pressure has affected his teammates, James said that was a question for his teammates rather than him.

You’re supposed to have anxiety and pressure — or feel the pressure,” James said. “That’s what it’s about. This is what the postseason is about. … You’d have to ask the individuals that question and see how they feel.”

James then looked at Davis and reaffirmed his confidence in the pairing as a championship-caliber duo.

“Me and this guy have been playing together for six years,” James said. “We’ve been to the mountaintop. We’ve been close to the mountaintop. We’ve played a lot of games. We know what it takes to win. We know what it takes to win a championship and how damn-near perfect you gotta be. That’s not like something that’s so crazy to obtain.

“I’ve been a part of it four times where you have to have the most perfect basketball to win. And I’ve done it with him. So I’m not a guy who you should ask because I don’t feel a way about anybody that doesn’t want to strive to be as close to perfect as possible.”

To get back to the point, the Lakers are going to face a difficult offseason with more questions than answers as of now.

Will Ham be back? How do the players feel with the totality of the season nearing? What happens with Russell? How can L.A. consider him a part of their future when he’s unplayable against the Nuggets? How can the Lakers add more size, athleticism and defense to their frontline?

In the meantime, the Lakers have at least one more game remaining in their season.

James, who has a career of firsts, said the key to achieving the impossible and coming back from a 3-0 series deficit is focusing on one game at a time.

“It’s one game at a time, at this point,” James said. “You lose, you go home. So we’re going come in with the mindset of, ‘Let’s get one.’ Force a Game 5 and then we go from there. So as long as you still have life, then you always have belief. I just think you play until the wheels fall off.”

(Photo of Christian Braun, Michael Porter Jr. and LeBron James: David Crane / Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)


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