Can Denver Nuggets Actually Come Back from 3-1 Again vs. Los Angeles Lakers?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 25, 2020

Denver Nuggets' Jamal Murray (27) scores past Los Angeles Lakers' Danny Green (14) during the second half of an NBA conference final playoff basketball game Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The Lakers won 114-108. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

You're going to see the same hack joke everywhere over the next couple of days: The Denver Nuggets have the Los Angeles Lakers right where they want them.

It's just so easy—as easy as it is off the mark. The truth is, we're now on the last few pages of one of the playoffs' best stories with Denver down 3-1 for the third consecutive series following Thursday's 114-108 loss to the Lakers.

The Nuggets could have had this one, though. Dwight Howard's surprise start and improbable first-half impact keyed a Lakers attack built on offensive boards and putbacks. Howard had four of those himself in the first quarter and grabbed six of his team's misses on the night. In all, the Lakers crushed Denver 25-6 in second-chance points.

The Nuggets will take little solace in just how anomalous the Lakers' night on the offensive glass was; between now and a do-or-die Game 5, all they'll think about is that a bludgeoning on the boards of that magnitude came in a game they lost by just six points. That's if they can put Anthony Davis' equally improbable game-winner in Game 2 out of their minds yet.

Without taking anything away from L.A., which has earned its 3-1 advantage, the Nuggets are awfully close to being up 3-1 themselves.

But they're not.

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And though this team has demonstrated its resilience to a historic degree by climbing out of 3-1 holes in each of the last two series, the third time won't be the charm—not with Davis shoveling dirt on them like he has over the last two games.

AD followed up his 31-point, buzzer-beating heroism in Game 2 with another 34 points Thursday. He hit his first seven shots from the field, and whatever adjustments the Nuggets make ahead of Game 5, nothing figures to slow down Davis when he's closing out games like this.

That's actually a point worth dwelling on.

See, if Denver doesn't shock the basketball world for a third straight time, it won't be because "the magic ran out." There was no magic in the Nuggets' previous comebacks. They're not charmed or lucky or anything of the sort. They had agency in turning the tables on the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers.

They were the better team. It just took them four games (and three losses) to prove it.

The challenge is different this time, and it's entirely because of who's in possession of that 3-1 advantage.

That's bleak for Denver. But even if the point we're making here is that not all 3-1 deficits are alike, the Nuggets will call on some of the same battle-forged traits that propelled them to their last two series triumphs.

For starters, the Nuggets aren't fazed by the Lakers. They just took down the most recent Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard, picking his team apart as theirs held together, growing immensely in the process. Even Denver's least experienced players are firing off high-leverage shots against L.A. with no concerns about the sky-high stakes.

Add to that the fact that Denver has made a habit of eventually figuring out what works and what doesn't better than its competitors. Case in point: The zone that flummoxed the Nuggets and forced several late turnovers, allowing the Lakers to nearly make up all of a 20-point deficit in Game 3, didn't look so great in Game 4.

The more the Nuggets see an opponent, the more they zero in on weak spots.

There are glimmers of hope—for Game 5, if not the series as a whole.

And let's not forget the blinding light that is Jamal Murray, whose 32 points and positively preposterous shotmaking in Game 4 would have been surprising if he hadn't spent the entire playoffs electrifying his team in exactly the same manner.

Just as the Nuggets seem to lack an answer for Davis, the Lakers can't be expected to draw up plans to stop this:

Or this:

Or this:

In the end, though, we have to return to the bare fact that Denver is a game away from elimination. The Lakers, more experienced and seeming far less likely than the Jazz or Clippers to wilt under the Nuggets' desperate onslaught, get three cracks at ending this thing.

If and when they do, let's be sure to remember that the Nuggets didn't regress to the mean or come back to earth or run out of whatever special sauce it was that got them this far. They didn't wind up in the Western Conference Finals on a fluke. They earned their way here on the strength of tactical adjustments, heart and the simultaneous brilliance of Murray and Nikola Jokic.

Denver's run may be nearly over, but the magic was always real.