LOS ANGELES — For the third time in as many games in the Western Conference finals, the outcome was up for grabs in the fourth quarter, and the Los Angeles Lakers couldn’t complete the task.
Saturday’s 119-108 loss to the Denver Nuggets to fall behind 3-0 in the series might have contained different details than L.A.’s two defeats to begin the series, but the general theme was the same: The West’s No. 1 seed did more when it mattered most.
Now one loss away from their season being over, the Lakers, who started the season 2-10 and completely overhauled the roster just before the All-Star break, are hoping they have one more improbable run left in them.
“Just got to get one,” said LeBron James, who finished with 23 points, 12 assists and 7 rebounds but missed 11 of 19 shots — including 4 of 6 in the fourth quarter. “Just one at a time. Just focus on Game 4, and you know, that’s all you can really think about.”
If there was one game that seemed attainable for the Lakers, Saturday was it. The Lakers were at home, where they had yet to lose this postseason. Nuggets star Nikola Jokic had as many fouls as made field goals (four) through the first three quarters. Anthony Davis (28 points on 11-for-18 shooting, 18 rebounds) was impactful.
But with the game hanging in the balance, the Nuggets took it, using a 13-0 run from the 7:48 mark of the fourth quarter until there was 4:50 remaining to put it out of the Lakers’ reach. Jokic, with 15 points on 5-for-7 shooting in the fourth, was the best player on the court to close it.
NBA teams are 0-149 when trailing 3-0 in a best-of-seven series, and the Lakers as a franchise have never even forced a Game 5 when in this position, going 0-8, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information.
L.A. trailed by three in the final minute in Games 1 and 2. And the Lakers had their chances in Game 3, taking the lead in the fourth. The Nuggets have edged the Lakers consistently enough to turn a seemingly small margin between the two teams into a wide gap heading into Game 4.
“I think it’s been the timely shots by their role players,” James said when asked what he felt the difference has been.
To James’ point, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (17 points), Bruce Brown (15 points) and Michael Porter Jr. (14 points) all had their moments on Saturday. According to data compiled by ESPN Stats & Information, Brown is 8-for-13 (3-for-7 on 3s); Caldwell-Pope is 11-for-17 (5-of-11) and Porter is 8-for-15 (7-for-11) on open shots in the series.
The Lakers didn’t get the same well-rounded contributions from their roster in Game 3, with D’Angelo Russell (three points on 1-for-8 shooting), Jarred Vanderbilt (two points, 1-for-4) and Dennis Schroder (five points, 2-for-5) all struggling on offense.
“For me? Oh, I don’t know,” Russell said when asked what he needs to change in his approach to be effective against Denver. “I really don’t. I don’t know. I’ll try to figure it out.”
The Lakers have done a pretty good job of figuring things out on the fly this season, first securing a spot in the play-in tournament with a group of fresh faces while James missed a month late in the season with a foot injury, then becoming just the second No. 7 seed ever to reach the conference finals. They sounded dedicated to the uphill climb they’ve been on, so long as there are still games on the schedule.
“We can either come out Monday and go home or we can fight for another day, and with the group of guys that we’ve got, I know what that answer will be,” said Austin Reaves, who has topped 20 points in all three games this series.
The odds are not in L.A.’s favor, of course. Nearly two-thirds of the teams in NBA history to be down 3-0 got swept (91 of 149). Only three of those teams even forced a Game 7.
The Lakers will conduct a film session Sunday and arrive to work Monday for Game 4, hoping to extend the season to Tuesday and beyond.
“Circumstances are what they are,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “Difficult but not impossible.”