Nuggets ready to give Lakers a battle

NBA Basketball

After eliminating the Los Angeles Clippers in stunning fashion, Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone believes his team is ready for the test that awaits against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals, beginning Friday night near Orlando.

The Nuggets advanced by rallying from a 3-1 series deficit to bounce the Clippers 104-89 in Game 7 on Tuesday behind 40 points from Jamal Murray and a triple-double by Nikola Jokic (16 points, 22 rebounds and 13 assists).

Malone said the ability of the third-seeded Nuggets to defend against the second-seeded Clippers determined the outcome and allowed them to become the first NBA club to rally from back-to-back series after trailing 3-1. They knocked off the Utah Jazz in the opening round.

Denver held the Clippers without a field goal for more than seven minutes in the fourth quarter. They also held Kawhi Leonard and Paul George scoreless in the final period.

“I thought our defense the last three games was just incredible,” said Malone, who celebrated his 49th birthday Tuesday. “We have a special group. We still have a lot of work to do, Western Conference finals. We know we’re playing a very talented and well-rested Laker team. But I do know this: our guys are up for that challenge.”

Few believed Denver had a realistic chance of upsetting the second-seeded Clippers, one of the favorites to win the NBA title. But the Nuggets rallied from double-digit deficits with solid second-half performances in three consecutive contests to prevail.

Murray said a lack of respect from some media pundits also didn’t hurt.

“We shouldn’t have been down 3-1 but to come back from 3-1 against the Clippers was a big achievement, so it’s just fun to change that narrative,” Murray said.

Dominance has been the narrative for the top-seeded Lakers in the playoffs. They reached the conference finals by beating the Houston Rockets in five games. Like they did in the opening round against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Lakers dropped Game 1 before reeling off four straight wins to land in their first conference final in 10 years.

However, Lakers coach Frank Vogel believes the Nuggets will present a tougher task.

“To be honest, they’re a terrific basketball team,” Vogel said. “They deserve to be in the Western Conference finals and they’re a handful with the way that they play, the movement, the passing, the cutting. Obviously, Jamal and (Jokic) have been playing at a super high level, and they’re playing with a ton of confidence. So I wasn’t surprised.”

Anthony Davis and LeBron James also have been playing at a high level. Davis is averaging a team-high 27.6 points and 10.9 rebounds per game in the postseason. He is shooting 58.6 percent from the floor.

James averages 26.6 points, 10.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists in the playoffs. The Lakers have also gotten timely contributions from Markieff Morris, Kyle Kuzma, Rajon Rondo and Alex Caruso. Vogel believes they will all need to play well against Denver.

“Obviously, they’re a very resilient group to come back from 3-1 twice in the same year, and we’re going to have to play great to beat them,” Vogel said.

The Nuggets are playing in their first conference final in 11 years. They lost to the Lakers in six games in 2009.

–Field Level Media

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