Nuggets overcome Jokic’s off-night, put Lakers on brink of elimination

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Nikola Jokic took a step back, but the rest of the Denver Nuggets stepped up.

And as a result, the Nuggets are one win away from going to their first NBA Finals.

With four players besides their two-time MVP dishing out multiple assists, five of their teammates grabbing multiple rebounds and four of them producing double-digit points, Denver now holds a huge 3-0 lead over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western headquarters. Cycle of conference endings. Another win would earn the Denver franchise its first playoff elimination.

The home crowd was stunned into silence for most of the first half thanks in large part to point guard Jamal Murray, who picked up right where he left off by closing out the Nuggets’ Game 2 win with 23 points in the fourth quarter. Murray had 30 of his game-high 37 points in the first half Saturday.

Meanwhile, Jokic, for the first time in these playoffs, reverted to the passive postseason behavior that had previously questioned whether he truly deserved back-to-back MVP awards. He missed six of his first eight shots, hit zero free throws and had two rebounds in 22 first-half minutes. Three fouls in the first half were part of the problem, but he seemed content to let his supporting cast do the heavy lifting.

Jokic finished with 24 points, eight assists and six rebounds, easily his least productive performance this postseason. He picked it up in the fourth quarter, scoring 15 of his points then, but it was largely because the Lakers were so frantic to stop Murray that they settled for defending Jokic one-on-one with the 6-foot power forward 8 Rui. Hachimura. It’s hard to credit him as clutch after missing three of four free throws in the final minutes.

Denver still walked out of Arena with a 119-108 victory as Michael Porter Jr., Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell Pope took the game.

The most important stretch of the game came after Jokic picked up his fourth foul with 7:24 left in the third quarter. Defensive specialist Brown, who replaced Jokic, picked up his fourth foul less than 90 seconds later. The Nuggets were leading 68-63 when Jokic went to the bench. They played the rest of the period without him and still managed to take a two-point lead into the fourth quarter.

“I believe in my guys,” Jokic said. “KCP stepped up big, Bruce Brown had an amazing game, Mike had an amazing game. I didn’t doubt my teammates one bit.”

LeBron James credited them with being the difference in the series overall.

“I think it’s been their supporting cast hitting those timely shots that’s given them the edge,” he said.

An advantage that has become a 3-0 avalanche.

Statistics to know: The Lakers outshot the Nuggets in the paint, 52-38, but the Nuggets overcame that by winning the 3-point battle by an even bigger margin, 51-30, on 41% (17-of-41) shooting.

Game Play: With 5:35 left, the Lakers forced Murray into a mid-range aerial with the shot clock about to expire, but Brown outshot Austin Reaves and Anthony Davis for the tip, giving the Nuggets a 1-0 lead. 10 points and a clear punch to the collective gut of the Lakers.

Next for the Nuggets: As long as they continue to take care of the ball and win the battle for fast break points, it’s hard to see where the Lakers can find an edge. They shot 50% overall, had 30 assists and only five turnovers (!). They are the better shooting team, especially from long range, and the Lakers’ vaunted defense hasn’t had much of an impact.

Next for the Lakers: Manager Darvin Ham must analyze his players and see if he can find any capable of affecting the result. Jarred Vanderbilt started, was assigned to Murray and finished with two points and a plus-minus of -10. D’Angelo Russell also started and went 1-for-8 on three-pointers.

Date of the night: Murray, asked what it meant to be one win away from winning the series: “Five more.”

Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” about NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young-onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds”. He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @Rick Bucher.

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