For anyone concerned that a gut-punch loss in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals would take the wind out of Denver’s sails, their relatively comfortable 114–106 Game 3 win over the Lakers Tuesday night was a welcome sign that this squad’s spooky resilience is still somehow unshaken. Mike Malone never doubted it for a second, or anyway so he says. “[W]e’ve won six straight elimination games,” he reminded everyone in his postgame presser. “For some reason we love this bubble. I can’t explain that, but this team loves the bubble.”
There’s something alchemical to it. No rational observer would very strenuously make the case that the Nuggets have anything better than the third- and fourth-best players in this matchup, but then you look at a box score and see that the Lakers bench solidly outscored Denver’s, and put up three times as many assists, and twice as many steals, and also went a player deeper, and assumptions you were prepared to make about Denver’s superior depth start to look inadequate for the second series in a row. Besides, roster depth is not supposed to win a playoff series!
That’s a tried-and-true axiom of NBA hoops, that depth loses some of its value in the crucible of playoff basketball. Stars play more minutes and are in all ways maximized in the playoffs, and so having a 9th man who can stand in a corner for 18 non-catastrophic minutes of low-wattage regular-season basketball is not much of an advantage when there aren’t 18 minutes of low-wattage basketball to be found anywhere on the schedule. But there are limits to this axiom, and you start to detect those limits during Kyle Kuzma’s 27th minute of Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals. You start to scan the sidelines, looking for someone in a Lakers jersey who must be a better option for this moment than that guy. It’s a real jarring moment to realize there is not.
The Nuggets have excellent depth, but it’s less that they reach very far into the corners of their roster—they usually go nine deep when things are going well, which is healthy but not unusual—than it is that every guy they use regularly is useful in a way that cannot be said of most other playoff teams. The Lakers might even be a little bit deeper in absolute terms, but the Nuggets have the luxury of only relying on legitimate rotation-grade dudes, and that kind of depth especially matters when a team’s top-end talent is at a disadvantage. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray are awesome players and they are doing well against the Lakers, but for the Nuggets to win—and they’ve won five of the last six quarters and are one Mason Plumlee boner away from a series lead—they’re going to need their role players to come up huge. LeBron James and Anthony Davis, even surrounded by crud, are still a daunting challenge.
Tuesday night the Nuggets got 26 points on 11 shots from Jerami Grant, who also had primary LeBron-guarding duties and matched minutes with LeBron for all but a few short spells. They got 23 points on 13 combined shots from Michael Porter Jr. and Monte Morris, playing off the bench. They bought Jokic a huge and crucial stretch of rest in the second quarter by ripping off a 14-5 run to push their lead out to double digits, during Plumlee’s only stretch of court time. Jokic was at the center of the action all night, and Murray shook off a hideous start to hit some monster shots down the stretch, but the Nuggets are back in this series because their role players—Reggie Miller called them “the other guys” 19 billion times during the broadcast—did a lot of good and quantifiable work.
The depth comparison is deeply unflattering for the Lakers, who need at least two of the JaVale McGee-Dwight Howard-Rajon Rondo trio to be dialed in each night in order to go seven deep in players who are for sure not working for the opposition. Rondo was horrendous through three quarters of Game 3, before a four-minute fourth-quarter fugue state powered the Lakers through a terrifyingly sudden 16-2 run. Howard spent his evening having a quiet meltdown, laughing not-madly at various referees, grumping over touches, and trying to bait Jokic into some sort of mind duel. Head coach Frank Vogel evidently deemed McGee, who started at center for the Lakers, unplayable in the second half. This left the Lakers with their few Guys Who Are For Sure Good carrying a rotating fifth man from among their surfeit of Guys Who Are Quite Possibly Alive, and that was not a condition that was conducive to winning on a night when Denver’s other guys were so sharp.
That huge fourth-quarter Lakers run cut Denver’s lead to a single possession, but it also left the main guys on both teams completely gassed for a stretch of late minutes with the game hanging in the balance. Murray was gulping for air, Anthony Davis needed half the shot clock just to cross half-court, and Jokic failed to make hay out of a post mismatch that had him guarded by Rondo, who he outweighs by 400 pounds. Play was stagnating, and the action on the court was getting real ragged. The Nuggets needed to collect themselves, and they needed to be bailed out by someone with the legs and wherewithal to throw in a bucket. That’s normally a job for Murray, but in Game 3 it was Grant who gave the Nuggets some literal and figurative breathing room, by darting into the paint and lofting home a clutch contested floater, and then a couple possessions later by attacking Kuzma in transition and earning his way to the stripe. The cushion seemed to help Murray steady himself, after he spent much of L.A.’s big push generously handing the ball to opposing guards. Moments after Grant’s solo surge, Murray capped off his own little mini-run with this, which effectively ended the competitive portion of the game:
So once again the big dramatic highlights of the game belong to one of Denver’s ascending stars. That’s just how it goes. But it’s all those interchangeable guys and their unsexy but useful skillsets that keep these Nuggets on the march, both as an unboomable force of nature and in a very real possession-by-possession sense. The pressure is now squarely on the Lakers to elevate their play without simply asking more of a superstar duo that faded noticeably down the stretch of each of their last two games. Depth may not matter quite so much in the playoffs, unless or until it does.