The Denver Nuggets navigated foul trouble, a bad first three quarters from the MVP, and some bad defensive stretches to win 119-108 against the Los Angeles Lakers. The Nuggets are now up 3-0 in the Western Conference Finals and are one game away from their first NBA Finals in franchise history.

Jamal Murray scored 37 points, including 30 points in the first half alone, en route to one of the best performances of his playoff career. he attempted 20 shots in the first half, and the Nuggets needed him to be that aggressive. They rode that wave to a three-point lead at halftime, then found their footing as a team in the second half.

Nikola Jokić scored just five points in the first half on 2-of-8 from the field, but he ended up with 24 points, eight rebounds, and six assists on the evening, pedestrian numbers for what Nuggets fans are used to but still an impressive outing. The strength of that performance was in the fourth quarter though, when he had 15 points and effectively iced the game with his aggressiveness down the stretch.

The Nuggets took advantage of the Lakers’ poor outside shooting, allowing the Lakers to attempt mostly open three-pointers down the stretch for players that aren’t highly reliable. The Lakers shot 10-of-32 from three-point range for 31% with LeBron James shooting 3-of-9 from distance. Austin Reaves shot 3-of-5, including another three that was gifted by the basketball gods. The rest of the Lakers shot 7-of-27 from distance, and the unreliability of players like D’Angelo Russell helped Denver maintain momentum in the second half when their players stepped up to hit shots.

When Jokić exited due to foul trouble in the third quarter, several Nuggets stepped up, namely Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The veteran shooting guard had 17 points on 6-of-10 from the field and 4-of-7 from three. His timing on those points was sublime though, because the Nuggets needed a burst of offense in the third quarter to keep pace with the Lakers. Caldwell-Pope offered that and more.

Michael Porter Jr., Bruce Brown, and Jeff Green also deserve a ton of credit. Porter had a career high six assists to go with 14 points and 10 rebounds. He struggled with his jumper for parts of the evening but made the shots the Nuggets needed most from him, including a fourth quarter dagger. Brown contributed 15 points, five rebounds, and five assists off the bench, dealing with foul trouble in the second half but playing the exact right game the Nuggets needed down the stretch. Green may have only had five points himself, but he grabbed some rebounds, drew a charge, and played good defense on both LeBron James and Anthony Davis when needed. The fourth quarter three-pointer he hit was excellent timing as well.

Here are my takeaways from the Nuggets Game 3 matchup with the Lakers at Arena:

Jamal Murray picks up where he left off

The Nuggets knew they needed Murray to be amazing again in Game 3 to pull off a road win. There was likely no way that Murray could replicate his fourth quarter performance in Game 2. Scoring 23 points is really, really difficult.

But Murray gave it the ol’ college try and got close anyway. Murray scored 17 points in the first quarter alone, staying aggressive against his individual matchups and finding a consistent rhythm. He attacked Dennis Schroder, D’Angelo Russell, Austin Reaves, and even Anthony Davis, doing what he could to keep the pressure on.

“I think when someone gets going, you just get him the ball until he gets cold,” shared Jokić, who was fairly passive in the first half and looked for Murray often.

Murray kept going in the second quarter with his aggressiveness and just kept hitting. He shot 13-of-20 from the field in the first half (65%) and had an absurd 30 points by halftime, using an array of post moves, drives, and pull-up jumpers to create consistent offense.

In the second half, Murray calmed down a bit, missing some jumpers and runners while having to carry in the minutes that Jokić sat with foul trouble. He found that rhythm again in the fourth quarter though, hitting an important three-pointer and contorting layup on a setup from Jokić under the rim. He looked to feed Jokić more at that point, but he still found his own scoring.

Nikola Jokić struggles badly…until he won the Nuggets the fourth quarter

It’s not often that Jokić can’t buy a bucket, but he simply couldn’t get shots to go in the first half. Jokić missed floaters, jumpers, and turnaround hook shots in a way that was uncharacteristic of his usual play. He had just five points on 2-of-8 shooting in the first half and was clearly disrupted by the way Rui Hachimura and Anthony Davis were defending him as a tandem.

In the second half, Jokić found a couple baskets but quickly picked up his fourth foul in the third quarter. The Nuggets were able to hold serve for the rest of the third quarter though, allowing for a prolonged rest for Jokić heading into the fourth quarter. In the fourth, Jokić still made some mistakes but played his best quarter of the game, finding some success attacking Rui Hachimura at the rim instead of settling for jumpers. He was far more aggressive and did a better job setting up himself and his teammates by getting into the paint.

The Nuggets had enough to survive while Jokić wasn’t at his best, but they didn’t have enough to win it outright. They needed Murray to get them there. They also needed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr., and even Jeff Green to step up in the first three quarters. In the fourth quarter, Jokić had to get them across the finish line, and he did. The circumstances weren’t perfect, but Jokić and the Nuggets found a way, just as they always do.

The Nuggets are one win away from history

Denver’s now up 3-0 in the series on the Lakers, something some of us foresaw but weren’t confident enough to outright predict. It’s amazing to see the process play out the way that it has, with different players stepping up at different moments to help the Nuggets along their journey.

Michael Malone said after one of the previous playoff wins that it takes more than just one player to win a championship. The Nuggets found that out the hard way against the Golden State Warriors last season. It takes belief and poise and positive energy and high level execution just to get to that point. Then, it takes pure force of will to finish the job.

The Nuggets appear to have both. They’re made of the right stuff, and they’ve shown that side of themselves consistently throughout the year. They never got too high or too low, even when the regular season wins were piling up. They understood how much of a process the regular season AND the playoffs are, and they managed themselves perfectly to set up success at the biggest stage.

Now, it’s on the Nuggets to finish what they started.

“Just keeping everybody in the moment, not letting it slip away,” Murray implored postgame. “You need 16 wins to win a championship, and we’ve got five more to go, and the Lakers are in our way. They’re going to do everything in their power to come back and fight. They’re not just going to lay down and let us beat them on their home floor. We know next game’s going to be an even bigger test.”

Game 4 will be very interesting. The Nuggets might blow out the Lakers. Both teams might shut it down completely if one or the other doesn’t feel the game going their way. The Nuggets of course have plenty of chances to get that fourth win, while the Lakers have to make every single moment count from here on out. They might be up for that. They might not.

Whatever the case, this is the furthest the Nuggets have been in the NBA playoffs in franchise history. They’re one win away from taking part in their first NBA Finals as an organization, and that would feel extremely vindicating after the last three seasons of Nuggets basketball.

What’s clear is that the Nuggets are ready for this. Whether it’s close in Game 4 or not, they understand the pressure points better than any team so far. They’re pushing all of the right buttons to navigate these playoffs expertly. Now, it’s all about getting one last win. Then, certain celebrations can take place.

Enjoy the moment Nuggets fans. The Nuggets just had their biggest win in franchise history.

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