Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals series will be the toughest game that the Nuggets have played in the playoffs so far. That’s at least how I see it. It feels like everything will be lined up against Denver when the Nuggets tip off in Los Angeles tonight: The national narrative, probably the officiating, and of course, the Lakers’ crowd that’s watched its team go a perfect 6-0 at home in the playoffs.

The Nuggets are also perfect at home this postseason — Denver is 8-0 at Ball Arena — but Michael Malone’s bunch has been shaky on the road. That’s no surprise after watching the Nuggets throughout the entire regular season. In the playoffs, Denver is 2-3 away from the Mile High City.

Game 3 has major implications. The cards are already stacked against the Lakers and the Nuggets can essentially end this series tonight. In NBA playoff history, teams have a 6-56 series record when down 2-0 in a Conference Finals, but two of the six series wins were by LeBron James’ teams in 2007 and 2018.

These three battlegrounds could decide Game 3 and if the Nuggets are able to move one step closer to their first Finals appearance in franchise history.

Stopping the Lakers’ X-factor

Rui Hachimura has been the Lakers’ most efficient offensive player in the series. Denver has had no answer for his combination of size and skill. Hachimura went for 17 points on 8-11 shooting in Game 1, then in Game 2 tallied 21 points on 8-10 shooting.

Here were his eight baskets from Game 2.

Hachimura has hurt most Nuggets defenders that he’s gone against in the series but put in work against Jeff Green in Game 2. He shot 4-4 when guarded by Green on Thursday, per

I’m not expecting Malone to alter his bench rotation after a win — even though the Nuggets’ second unit has looked lost ever since Game 3 vs. the Suns — but it’s time to start to think about other options. The most natural matchup for Hachimura out of players who the Nuggets haven’t used yet in the series? It’s got to be Zeke Nnaji, who I think could do well defending him. They’re similar heights and body types. Nnaji is good at moving his feet too. He’s strong. I think he’s got a shot at slowing Hachimura down.

Nikola Jokic vs. Anthony Davis.

Jokic has won the matchup with Davis in both Games 1 and 2. In the Nuggets’ 108-103 Game 2 win, Jokic’s defense on Davis, who finished with just 18 points on 4-15 shooting, was exceptional.

Here were the Game 2 possessions where Jokic stopped Davis 1-on-1.

By now, all of the negative stereotypes that surrounded Jokic and his defense entering the playoffs should be dismissed and thrown out the window. The Nuggets are the 5th-best defense in the playoffs and have now been impressive defensively against the Timberwolves, the Suns, and now the Lakers. That’s three dramatically different styles of offenses that were run by several All-Star and All-NBA offensive weapons that the Nuggets have been able to at times shut down.

The key in Game 3 will be keeping Davis off the free-throw line. He’s shot 11 free throws in both games so far. The good news is that Jokic has been able to stay out of foul trouble while guarding Davis, but we’ll see if that storyline holds up as the series shifts to Los Angeles.

Can Aaron Gordon find his shot again?

Gordon shot 38.5% from 3-point range throughout the first two rounds of the playoffs but is 0-5 from distance in two games vs. the Lakers. He also shot 4-8 from the free-throw line in Game 1 and then didn’t attempt a free throw in Game 2.

This was Gordon’s first 3-point attempt of the series — he record-scratched and hesitated on it — and it set the tone for where his shooting has gone.

You don’t get the sense that Gordon has the same level of confidence in his jumper right now that he had entering the playoffs. And that’s not great news. The Lakers are going to leave him wide open whenever he sets up at the 3-point line in Game 3. They’ll keep trying to make Gordon beat them.

If Gordon can get one or two open 3s to drop, that might be all Denver needs to swing a Game 3 win. The Nuggets are 9-0 in the playoffs when they shoot above 35% from beyond the arc.


Harrison Wind is the Denver Nuggets beat reporter for DNVR Nuggets. Hear him every day on the DNVR Nuggets Podcast. Follow Harrison on Twitter - @HarrisonWind

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