Lakers appear beyond saving, even by LeBron James

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 20: Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, left, is fouled by Denver Nuggets forward Jeff Green on a shot attempt during the fourth quarter of game three in the NBA Playoffs Western Conference Finals at Arena on Sunday, May 20, 2023 in Los Angeles, CA. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Lakers forward LeBron James, left, attempts a fadeway shot while he’s fouled by Nuggets forward Jeff Green during the fourth quarter of Game 3 on Saturday evening at Arena. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Another three-pointer. Another miss.

LeBron James remained frozen on the three-point line, as if he were in disbelief.

His right arm was extended. His wrist was bent.

A couple of minutes later in the fourth quarter, James failed to finish at the rim after he was fouled.

James threw back his head.

His body language told the story of the game.

There would be no miracle for James or the Lakers on Saturday night.

In the wake of a 119-108 defeat to the Denver Nuggets on Saturday at Arena, the Lakers were pushed to the edge of elimination, as they are now behind in the Western Conference finals, three games to none.

Their season could be over on Monday night.

James didn’t make any major fourth-quarter blunders or miss every one of his three-point attempts in Game 3, as he did in the previous two games of the series.

He wasn’t awful, scoring 23 points, registering 12 assists and collecting seven rebounds.

He just wasn’t great, and he had to be great to make up for the substantial gap that exists between the Nuggets and Lakers.

As much as James has denied it, playing round after round in these playoffs looks as if it has taken its toll on his 38-year-old body.

“We had some opportunities,” James said, “but we didn’t come through.”

To be clear, his team’s 3-0 deficit isn’t entirely on him.

D’Angelo Russell was Russell Westbrook-level terrible in Game 3, making just one of eight shots while playing his typically indifferent form of defense.

Perhaps more important: The Nuggets are the better team. They demonstrated over the regular season, which they finished with the best record in the conference. They emphasized that point over the first three games of this series, including Saturday when Jamal Murray terrorized the Lakers in the first two quarters and Nikola Jokic did the same in the fourth.

Defeating them would have required a superhuman performance for James, similar to the one he delivered in an overtime win over the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 4 of their first-round series.

Evidently, he doesn’t have another one in him.

Of the 62 teams in NBA history that were behind two games to none in a conference final, only six came back to win. James was on two of them.

However, at 38, James can’t do for the Lakers what he did for the Cavaliers against the Detroit Pistons in 2007. He can’t do for the Lakers what he did against the Boston Celtics in 2018.

Now, the odds are even worse.

Lakers forward LeBron James, center, passes the ball while defended by Denver's Jeff Green, left, and Christian Braun.
Lakers forward LeBron James, center, passes the ball while defended by Denver’s Jeff Green, left, and Christian Braun during the first half of Game 3. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Before the Lakers, 149 teams had attempted to reverse a 3-0 deficit in a playoff series. Every one of them failed.

“Just focus one at a time,” James said. “Just focus on Game 4 and that’s all you can really think about. Obviously, this game is over and done with.”

About the only positive takeaway from Saturday night was that James finally made a shot from behind the arc after missing all 10 of his three-point attempts in Games 1 and 2.

His first three came with 44 seconds remaining in the third quarter. His second came about 18 seconds later.

But not even that could restart his engine, James finishing the game eight-of-19 shooting, including just three of nine on threes. He made only four of seven free throws.

One of his missed threes — the one that was the source of his momentary paralysis at the top of the arc — came in the middle of an 11-0 run for the Nuggets that transformed a one-point Lakers lead into a 10-point deficit.

“That was the game,” James said of that stretch.

The outside shooting of James was a subject of conversation before the game, with coach Darvin Ham defending his shot selection.

“It looked like the all-time leading scorer in NBA history taking a shot that was being given to him,” Ham said of Games 1 and 2. “The numbers say what they say, but I know he’s capable of making those shots. So I don’t want him to be any less aggressive.”

The effects of age didn’t suddenly become visible in this series. The consequences just weren’t as noticeable earlier.

James played a couple of stinkers late in the regular season when the Lakers’ schedule was condensed. In the first couple of rounds of these playoffs, he picked his spots to impose himself offensively.

James might be one of the two greatest players of all time. He is without question the greatest 38-year-old player in history. But he’s still 38.

His declining physical powers haven’t affected his ambition, James saying he was determined to make history again.

“That’s the only mindset for me,” he said.

The Lakers are 0-8 all-time when down 3-0 in a playoff series.

They have a chance to become the first team in franchise history to not be swept after trailing a series by this margin. That’s about all the history James and the Lakers will make.

The calendar isn’t undefeated — James has conquered it a number of times up to this point. But the calendar always wins in the end.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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