Gordon, Jokic lead the Nuggets to the brink of a sweep with a 112-105 win over the Lakers in Game 3

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LOS ANGELES — With one championship ring and a tenacious veteran core, the Denver Nuggets are a daunting matchup for any opponent in the NBA.

They’re clearly a particular nightmare for LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, who are one game away from an early summer after Denver stretched its winning streak in this lopsided rivalry to a whopping 11 games.

Aaron Gordon had a playoff career-high 29 points and 15 rebounds, Nikola Jokic added 24 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists, and the Nuggets moved to the brink of the second round with a 112-105 victory over the Lakers in Game 3 of their first-round series Thursday night.

Jamal Murray scored 22 points to help the defending NBA champion Nuggets win their seventh straight playoff meeting with James and the Lakers in dominating style. Denver has rallied from a double-digit deficit in all three games, and the Nuggets went out of their way after Game 3 to praise an opponent they’ve utterly dominated recently.

“I think every game is tougher and tougher,” Jokic said. “They were up 20 in Denver, they were up 12 today in the first half, but I think it’s really hard to play against the same team over and over again. … That’s a really tough team, and every game is really interesting and tough to win. Every game we’re playing catch-up, and they’re really talented. It’s really hard to close a team out.”

Michael Porter Jr. added 20 points for Denver, which took control in the third quarter and cruised through the final minutes to its fifth straight road win over Los Angeles, starting with its sweep of last season’s Western Conference finals.

“It’s fun to win games,” Porter said. “I don’t think anybody besides the media looks at the 11 (straight victories), because it’s hard. It’s not easy to beat this team. Last game, coming back from 20 points, we had to scratch and claw. So it’s not easy. But of course we like winning, and the more times we can win the better.”

Game 4 is Saturday night in Los Angeles. No NBA team has ever rallied from an 0-3 playoff deficit.

Anthony Davis had 33 points and 15 rebounds, and James added 26 points and nine assists for the Lakers, who haven’t beaten the Nuggets since Dec. 16, 2022 — and have rarely looked capable of ending that streak.

“You come out with the mindset, ‘Let’s get one, force a Game 5, and then we go from there,’” James said. “As long as you still have life, then you obviously have belief. I just think you play ’til the wheels fall off. That’s what it’s always about for me. That’s a mindset, and I know (Davis) feels the same way.”

Austin Reaves scored 22 points for Los Angeles, which surged into the postseason with largely outstanding play since the holidays, capped by an impressive play-in win over New Orleans to snatch the seventh seed. The Lakers had won 12 of 15 heading into this series — but now they’re one loss away from failing to win a playoff round for the third time in four years since their 2020 NBA title.

“They have a championship confidence,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said about the Nuggets. “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.”

Davis and James were outstanding once again, but they can’t do it alone. The Lakers missed 15 of their first 16 3-point attempts in Game 3, going nearly 34 minutes between 3-point buckets.

D’Angelo Russell went scoreless in 24 minutes of play for the Lakers, who got only two assists out of their inconsistent third option on offense. Russell missed all seven of his shots, including six 3-point attempts.

Meanwhile, Gordon had the highest-scoring playoff game of his 10 NBA seasons, highlighted by 10 points in the third quarter while Denver took control. Jokic also made nine of his 13 shots and barely missed his 17th career postseason triple-double.

The second-seeded Nuggets began their title defense with two wins in Denver, pulling away late in Game 1 before snatching Game 2 with a furious comeback capped by Murray’s winning jumper at the buzzer.

After blowing a 20-point lead in the second half of Game 2, the seventh-seeded Lakers were left feeling frustrated, outmanned — and occasionally confused, according to Davis, who said the Lakers sometimes don’t know what they’re doing when faced with Denver’s offensive versatility.

None of those problems had been alleviated in Game 3, and now the Lakers are one loss away from the end of James’ remarkable 21st NBA season. Los Angeles hadn’t played a home game in 16 days, and it has won just once at home since March 24.

“Just last season, I was up 3-0 and ended up in a Game 7,” said Lakers guard Gabe Vincent, who played for the Miami Heat last season when they nearly blew a 3-0 lead on Boston. “Crazier things have happened.”

But the Nuggets went 16-4 in last season’s playoffs, and they appear capable of another steamroll through the postseason after comfortably handling the talented Lakers through three games.

Russell’s disappearing act was compounded by another quiet game from starter Rui Hachimura, who had only five points while taking four shots in 28 minutes.

Denver turned a small halftime deficit into a 10-point lead with a 24-10 run to start the second half led by Gordon and Murray, who combined for 19 points in the third quarter. The Lakers never got closer than eight points down the stretch in the fourth quarter.

While the Lakers’ fans left the building in the final minutes, a small group in the Lakers’ end chanted “Fire Darvin!”


AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA

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