After steering his team to historic comebacks in back-to-back playoff series, Denver head coach Michael Malone was unsurprised to see the Nuggets make a decisive stand in the closing minutes of Game 3 against the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Nuggets saw their 20-point advantage in the fourth quarter evaporate as the Lakers ramped up their aggression. With still over five minutes left, the Lakers made it a three-point game, 101-98, off a LeBron James layup.
But Denver held firm, with Jamal Murray splashing a clutch three-pointer with 2:17 left to make it a 106-99 lead, then assisting on a Paul Millsap dunk a possession later to extend their advantage. The Nuggets went on to win, 114-106, trimming the series deficit to 2-1.
"No lead is safe, especially against a team like that. I'm not sure what they cut it to, whether it's one or three, but it got to be really close," said Malone after the game.
"That's when I was proud that we gave up our lead, but we didn't collapse. We withstood their run, their punch. We had the poise to get ourselves out of it," he added.
"That's the sign of a team that's been in a lot of close games and has won a lot of close games in the last three, four years."
Their first two series in the NBA playoffs had prepared the Nuggets for a duel against James, Anthony Davis, and the Lakers in the West finals.
The third-seeded Nuggets fell behind 3-1 to the Utah Jazz in the first round, before winning the series in seven games.
In the semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers, they again fell behind 3-1 and were counted out against a team that featured All-Stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Again, however, the Nuggets rallied. They reeled off three straight wins against the Clippers, highlighted by a 104-89 rout in Game 7 that sent them to the conference finals for the first time in a decade.
"I think for me, what gave me the belief is that we've been one of the best closing teams and clutch teams in the last few years, led by Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic," said Malone.
"Then you had Jerami Grant making the plays he was making. We believe," he stressed.
Murray finished the game with 28 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds, while Jokic put up 22 points and 10 boards. The unheralded Grant had a playoff-career high of 26 points while playing stout defense on Davis and James.
After showing in previous playoff rounds that they can erase any deficit, the Nuggets are now more confident than ever, thanks to their win over the Lakers.
"This gives us that much more confidence going into this series letting them know that we're here, we're in this for the long haul. We're going to continue to fight and do whatever we can," said Malone.