Lakers fade again in Game 3 loss to Denver, moving to brink of elimination

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The climb is mountainous, trouble lurking at every step.

One bad dribble, and Denver runs the other direction, creating an open three. One missed assignment, and Aaron Gordon cuts underneath for a dunk. One whiffed box out and the Nuggets get a second, and sometimes, a third chance.

One missed shot, and the margins get tighter, the chances get smaller, the ending gets closer.

One more tough night and the season will be done.

Boos started to fill Arena by the fourth quarter of Game 3 on Thursday, this time coming after a mistake on a screen led to an open Denver dunk.

The realization had set in — one that probably should’ve been realized sooner. The fact that the Lakers have been close to beating the Nuggets in the last 11 games has been no consolation. In fact, it probably makes it worse.

Denver, like it always seems to do, was always there to gleefully capitalize on every Lakers mistake, every execution error. The Nuggets’ 112-105 win, even more so than their previous wins of the series, felt like relatively light work, with the Lakers dispatched relatively early in the second half.

The Lakers now trail Denver 3-0 in the best-of-seven playoff series — no team in NBA history has ever come back from that deficit.

The Nuggets outscored the Lakers by 18 in the second and third quarters, the game logs looking like they could’ve been Xeroxed from any of the previous 11 meetings between the teams, 11 games the Denver Nuggets have won.

It wasn’t even Nikola Jokic’s night to rip the heart out of the Lakers. Foul trouble zapped some of his aggressiveness (his “off” night yielded 24 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists). And the Lakers again defended Jamal Murray fairly well, holding him to 22 points on eight-of-21 shooting.

But the Lakers lost on every other margin, Gordon owning the glass and Michael Porter Jr. hitting big shot after big shot.

The Lakers, like they have throughout the series, won the first minutes by playing with more energy, more pace and more force. They scored the first eight points — three coming on consecutive dunks — to prove that Murray’s winning shot on a buzzer-beater Monday hadn’t done permanent damage.

LeBron James and Anthony Davis led the push — the Lakers’ stars looking unstoppable as they attacked the Nuggets’ interior defense.

But just like in their series opener, the Lakers’ outside shots kept missing.

Rui Hachimura’s corner three with 5:24 left in the first quarter was the only Lakers’ basket from three until Taurean Prince hit a corner three with eight minutes left in the game.

By then, the Lakers were down double figures and more than 33 minutes of game time had vanished. D’Angelo Russell struggled again, going scoreless on 0-for-7 shooting in his 24 minutes.

Too many things that “can’t happen” against the Nuggets continued to happen against the Nuggets, like Russell’s struggles.

Austin Reaves missed layups, his legs heavy from chasing Murray. Hachimura, after getting in the action early, completely faded on offense as he tried to limit Gordon and Jokic.

And Russell, a key to the Lakers’ season, spent the final minutes on the bench as coach Darvin Ham searched for an answer.

There was nothing to be found, a climb so dizzying, the ending is all but assured.

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