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Column: Lakers go from memorable shot to miserable flop in Game 3 loss to Nuggets

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, left, and Lakers forward Anthony Davis battle for a loose ball.
Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, left, and Lakers forward Anthony Davis battle for a loose ball during the first half of the Lakers’ 114-106 loss in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals on Tuesday.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Two days after one of the greatest moments in team history, you’ll never guess what the Lakers did for an encore.

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

They went from The Mamba Shot to The Miserable Flop. They went from wholly inspired to mostly insipid. They went from the Lakers to … the Clippers?

We honestly didn’t know they had it in them, but for three quarters Tuesday against the Denver Nuggets, the Lakers stumbled around the court like their hallway neighbors from last week, falling behind by 20, rarely active, barely there.

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Yes, they mounted a furious fourth-quarter comeback, whittling the deficit to three, but they never should have needed it, and exhaustedly couldn’t finish it. Thus the evening ended not in familiar dramatics but frustrating disappointment, a 114-106 Nuggets victory in Game 3 of a Western Conference finals that suddenly feels very different.

Yeah, it’s a series now, the Lakers blowing their chance to slam the door shut, leading now two games to one. Yeah, think about it, the Lakers are actually one historic Anthony Davis trey from actually trailing.

After the Lakers stormed back to make it a two-possession game, Jamal Murray’s clutch play secured a 114-106 win for the Nuggets. The Lakers lead the series 2-1.

And no, don’t buy any narrative that the Lakers’ late comeback was the story, because the story was that they lost, and how they lost.

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“I thought Denver played with great energy throughout the game,” Lakers Coach Frank Vogel said. “We didn’t match it early, we matched it late.”

Way late. Too late. Embarrassingly late.

The game, played again without fans at AdventHealth Arena near Orlando, Fla., was symbolized by an encounter between LeBron James and Denver’s Jamal Murray early in the third quarter, when Murray flagrantly elbowed James in the jaw and knocked him on the floor. In outrebounding the Lakers by 19 and scoring nearly three times as many second-chance points, the Nuggets pummeled them.

“They played better than us, more aggressive than us, for three quarters … those first 36 minutes, that hurt us obviously,” James said.

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And what of the Game 2 hero, Davis, who had beaten the Nuggets with a triple at the buzzer? Well, um, he showed up only sporadically, and, in case you were wondering, he missed all four of his three-point attempts. Most amazingly, he did not grab his first rebound until the fourth quarter and finished with two.

“Unacceptable … there’s not really much I can say,” Davis said afterward. “I have to do better.”

There were stumbles everywhere. James had a triple-double but he also had six turnovers. Alex Caruso, another Game 2 hero, made one of seven shots. Danny Green made one shot in 20 minutes. The Lakers missed 20 three-point attempts, eight free throws, and committed 16 turnovers that Denver turned into 25 points.

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“For three quarters they were more physical than us,” Davis said. “They played [with] more desperation. They played harder.”

Before the game, Vogel was adamant that the Lakers could have — and maybe should have? — lost a Game 2 that the Nuggets seemingly had won before Davis’ fabulous fling.

“Our guys are well aware that we dodged a bullet,” he said. “We dodged a bullet and have to be better.”

They weren’t better. They dodged nothing. Until that fourth quarter, it was striking how slow and stifled and weary they seemed.

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The crumble began in the second quarter. Suddenly the Lakers stopped playing defense. They started strolling around the court. They lost their patience. They lost their fight.

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Highlights from the Lakers’ 114-106 loss to the Denver Nuggets in Game 3 on Tuesday.

At one point the Nuggets went on a 17-2 run while making 11 of 13 shots in taking a 15-point lead. During a timeout in the middle of this blitz, a Laker finally got aggressive. It was the coach.

“They’re playing harder, they’re playing tougher, they’re player faster,” Vogel shouted to his dour-looking group. “They want the game more than we do right now.”

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In the Lakers’ locker room at halftime, after they cut an 18-point lead to 10, Vogel challenged his team to do something new — stage a serious playoff comeback.

“A new opportunity to add to our resume,” Vogel said. “Down 18.”

Yet by late in the third quarter, it became “Down 20,” the Lakers’ biggest deficit of the postseason. They were still down 20 with 10:36 left in the game after Murray’s vicious, snarling dunk.

LeBron James answers forcefully about the two sheriffs deputies who were shot in Compton and the criticism leveled at him.

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Only then did the Lakers finally find some fight and you have to wonder, where was it earlier? Where was the 19-2 run fueled by amazing defense? Where were all those Rajon Rondo steals and James layups and, yes, even a Davis rebound?

The Lakers cut it to three in the final five minutes before falling apart again, but by then, they were so tired, Davis was walking up the court. Two days ago, the Lakers danced into the night. On Tuesday, they trudged, and you have to wonder again, really, who are they?

Are they the tiring and increasingly tepid Lakers who have been startlingly outscored by the Nuggets over a five-quarter stretch in this series? Or are they still the focused and furious Lakers who have responded to their previous two playoff losses by steamrolling their opponents into next season?

Thursday is Game 4. There is still so much to be learned. There is still so much that can be lost.

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Plaschke reported from Los Angeles.


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