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Lakers vs. Nuggets Game 3 Preview: Can L.A. keep their foot on the gas?

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The Lakers have a 2-0 lead on the Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals. Can they make it 3-0?

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Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Lakers - Game Two Photo by Joe Amati/NBAE via Getty Images

On Sunday night, the Los Angeles Lakers had just taken a 2-0 lead over the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals, but you almost wouldn’t be able to tell if listening to the team talk.

Yes, the Lakers were excited about Anthony Davis’ incredible buzzer-beater. Yes, him hitting it in the Kobe Bryant-inspired Black Mamba jerseys was a cool tribute. But they also knew that they had let the Nuggets back into the game and nearly lost it as a result. They may have been happy with the way the night turned out, but they weren’t satisfied with how they got there.

“We’ve got to finish the game better. Up eight with a couple minutes left, we’ve got to close the game better,” said Lakers guard Alex Caruso.

“This is a complete basketball team we’re playing against,” added Lakers head coach Frank Vogel. “Leads mean nothing. You’ve got to play 48 minutes. Luckily we were able to prevail down the stretch.”

Even Davis himself said he wasn’t going to spend very long celebrating what he admitted was the biggest shot of his career before locking in to focus on preparing to be better in Game 3. He critiqued himself and the team for being too careless with the ball — they had 23 turnovers in the game — and for not valuing every possession the way they need to in order to win playoff games.

“The job is definitely not over until we’re able to win a ring. That’s when it’s over, and that’s when the task is completed,” Davis said. “It was a big shot, we’ll celebrate it for a couple hours, but this team fought. They could have easily won this game and we’ve still got to get ready for Game 3.”

Aside from ball security, the Lakers also clearly suffered a letdown on both ends in the second half. After building up a 10-point lead at halftime, they seemed to stop defending as hard, and stop playing with the requisite effort on offense that it took for them to build their lead, settling for jumper after jumper. In the first half, the Lakers took 15 of their 43 field-goal attempts within five feet of the rim. In the second half, they only took five of their 40 shots from that distance. Some of that is a credit to the Nuggets, but some of it is the Lakers — especially LeBron James — getting a bit jumper-happy.

The good news for the Lakers is that they got the win anyway, their first of this postseason in which they’ve been able to survive a game in which James was in the negative in plus-minus. He wasn’t that bad in this one — he still had 26 points and 11 rebounds — but he did turn the ball over six times against just four assists, and it seems exceedingly likely he’ll be better in Game 3 after watching the tape from this one.

That the Lakers were able to win in spite of James’ mediocre performance (by his standards) was a credit to Davis, who James admitted he needed to get the team over the finish line in this one.

“To be completely honest, shit, in the second half, I leaned on him,” James said of Davis’ 31-point, game-winning performance. “And he brought us home.”

And getting this win in spite of their sloppy play may be a blessing in disguise for the Lakers’ coaching staff: They still got the 2-0 lead, but the second-half letdown likely gave them license to treat their film sessions between games like they had taken a loss. The team themselves already seemed to be talking like they had basically been defeated, and if this locks them back in, maybe they can avoid giving the Nuggets a game. Because the only proven way to not let Denver come back from a 3-1 lead this postseason is to not let them get any wins.

“Championship teams, they play 48 minute games, and we’re working on doing that,” Caruso said.

If they want to make sure this is a short series against the Nuggets, they’ll have to.

Notes and Updates

  • The Lakers’ injury report is the same as last game. LeBron — as he has been the whole playoffs — is probable with a sore groin, while Dion Waiters is doubtful with his own sore groin.
  • Because the Lakers apparently hate fun, they did not list Talen Horton-Tucker (destroyed by Anthony Davis) as probable.

Thankfully, the rookie says he’s fine.

  • The anatomy of how Rajon Rondo set Davis up for his clutch bucket is a must-read.
  • The Lakers are talking a staggering amount of trash to the Nuggets. I have a theory on why.

Game 3 will tip off at 6:00 p.m. PT, and like the rest of the Western Conference Finals, it will be televised exclusively on TNT.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.