We have ourselves a series.
Led once again by their dynamic duo of Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic, the Denver Nuggets held off the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals to avoid going down 3-0.
The Nuggets will now look to tie the series up at 2-2 when the two teams meet again on Thursday.
Here are three things to watch in Game 4.
Getting into a zone
It feels like I've written more about zone defences in these playoffs than I have in the last four seasons combined.
Down big in the fourth quarter of Game 3, the Lakers switched things up by playing zone rather than man-to-man defence with Rajon Rondo, Alex Caruso, Kyle Kuzma, LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the court. And it worked. Over a three minute stretch, Los Angeles went on a 9-0 run to cut Denver's lead into single digits, sparked by it forcing not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, but six turnovers, five of which were live ball.
It wasn't just a matter of the Lakers picking off haphazard passes either. They straight up stripped the ball from the Nuggets on a couple of occasions, leading to easy baskets on the other end.
Murray and Jokic had two turnovers each, while Jerami Grant and Michael Porter Jr. committed one each.
According to Brian Geisinger of Sports Channel 8, the Lakers played zone on nine defensive possessions in Game 3. The Nuggets missed all four of the shots they attempted against that zone in addition to coughing the ball up several times. Not only did it catch them off guard, it completely took them out of their rhythm, to the point where they needed some late-game heroics from Murray to avoid a meltdown.
Based on the success they had with it in Game 3, it'll be interesting to see if the Lakers play more zone in Game 4. It'll also be interesting to see if the Nuggets are better prepared for it.
The other guys
Murray and Jokic once again led the way for the Nuggets in Game 3, but Denver received a big boost from Jerami Grant.
In 33 minutes, Grant scored 26 points on 7-for-11 shooting from the field, 2-for-5 from 3-point range and 10-for-12 from the free throw line, making for the highest scoring game of his postseason career.
It was made all the more impressive by Grant guarding either James and Davis for almost every minute he was on the court.
"Jerami was spectacular," Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said after the game. "26 points. He got to the foul line 12 times, made 10, had really good defensive possessions guarding some of the best players in the world.
"We knew going in what we're going to get every night from Nikola, from Jamal, and you always wonder, 'Well, who's going to step up and be that third scorer?' And tonight, obviously Jerami came through in a big, big way for us. I'm proud of Jerami."
😤 @JeramiGrant goes off for an #NBAPlayoffs career-high 26 PTS in the @nuggets Game 3 win!- NBA (@NBA) September 23, 2020
They look to even the series Thursday at 9:00pm/et on TNT. pic.twitter.com/GRVraPILTT
Additionally, the Nuggets got a spark from backup point guard Monte Morris, who came off the bench to score 14 points in 19 minutes. 12 of those points came in the first half, when the Nuggets built a double-digit lead.
While the Nuggets can't expect that sort of production from Grant and Morris every game, between them and Gary Harris, Michael Porter Jr. and Paul Millsap, they have a handful of players who can give them another scoring punch on any given night. And when one or two of those players do give them a scoring punch, they become an entirely new monster.
The Lakers got some decent play out of their supporting cast in Game 3, but nobody could quite match the production of Grant and Morris.
The battle of the boards
One thing the Nuggets did a much better job of in Game 3 was limiting the Lakers' second-chance opportunities.
According to NBA.com, the Lakers averaged 14.1 second chance points per game during the regular season, putting them behind only five teams for the most in the league.
In Game 1, the Lakers turned 10 offensive rebounds into 12 second-chance points.
In Game 2, the Lakers turned 13 offensive rebounds into 16 second-chance points.
In Game 3, the Lakers recorded only four offensive rebounds and four second-chance points.
Game 2 was particularly rough for the Nuggets in that regard. In a game that was decided by only two points, there were simply too many possessions in which the Lakers beat them to the ball. It was a factor on the final possession of the game, as an offensive rebound from Danny Green preceded Davis' game-winning 3-pointer.
In Game 3, the Nuggets rebounded more by committee, resulting in plays like this, in which Jokic boxes out Davis and Murray swoops in for the rebound:
There's a lot that goes into beating this Lakers team, but one of the keys is getting them to play in the halfcourt, where they ranked 19th in offensive efficiency during the regular season, per Cleaning The Glass. With how much more vulnerable they are in the halfcourt, giving multiple bites of the apple is a backbreaker.
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