Lakers were so close but Jerami Grant helped Nuggets hold on

Nuggets forward Jerami Grant drives for a layup against Lakers guard Rajon Rondo during the second half of Game 3 on Tuesday night.  (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Even as they were forced to come to grips with the pain of a last-second defeat in Game 2, the Denver Nuggets refused to give in to the forces going against them, namely the heavily favored Lakers, in the Western Conference finals.

Even as they saw a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter dip to three tenuous points, the Nuggets stood firm when the ultimate challenge came Tuesday night in Game 3 at AdventHealth Arena.

After capturing a 114-106 win on the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, the Nuggets believe they have given the Lakers something to think about in the best-of-seven series Los Angeles leads 2-1.

The Nuggets want the Lakers to know they plan on sticking around and that the game-winning shot by Anthony Davis as time expired in Game 2 on Sunday has not discouraged them.

“The way we looked at this situation coming into tonight was they blew us out in Game 1,” Denver coach Michael Malone said Tuesday night about his team’s 12-point loss in that first game. “Game 2 we gave away at the end, so we had to right that wrong and try to get a game under our belt, which we did tonight. So this gives us that much more confidence going into this series, letting them know we’re here. … But we’re in this for the long haul and we’re going to continue to fight and do whatever we can.”

The Nuggets have shown to be fighters the entire playoffs, coming back for 3-1 deficits in a first-round series against the Utah Jazz and a second-round series against the Clippers.

Against the Clippers, the Nuggets were down double-digits in the final three games and still came back to win that series.

So just because the Nuggets lost a heartbreaking Game 2 to the Lakers didn’t mean they were going to be disheartened.

“We had Game 2,” said Denver guard Jamal Murray, who was two rebounds shy of a triple-double with 28 points, eight rebounds and 12 assists Tuesday. “I thought we played great in Game 2. We just had a couple of breakdowns that really hurt us. We feel like we should be up 2-1 right now, to be honest. But we’re just going to move on to Game 4.”

Before the Nuggets could think about Game 4 on Thursday night, they felt the heat of the Lakers’ surge.

A 97-77 Nuggets cushion in the fourth quarter was trimmed twice to three points, at 99-96 and 101-98, before the Nuggets were able to put the Lakers away.

“We withstood their run, their punch,” Malone said. “We had the poise to get ourselves out of it and that’s a sign of a team that has won a lot of close games and has won a lot of close games the last two or three years.”

The Nuggets stayed the course because unheralded forward Jerami Grant came through for them in a time of need, becoming that third scorer to support Murray and All-Star center Nikola Jokic, who 22 points, 10 rebounds and five assists.

Grant scored twice to keep the Lakers at bay after they had cut their deficit to three, once with a basket and again on two free throws.  His 26 points on seven-for-11 shooting from the field and 10 of 12 from the free-throw line left Malone being honest about where the Nuggets would be without Grant’s big night.

“Well, we’d be down 3-1,” Malone said. “That’s the bottom line. Jerami was spectacular. Twenty-six points. He got to the foul line 12 times, made 10, had really good defensive possessions guarding some of the best players in the world. We knew going in what we’re going to get every night from Nikola, from Jamal, and you always wonder, ‘Well, who’s going to step up and be that third scorer?’ And tonight, obviously Jerami came through in a big, big way for us. I’m proud of Jerami.”

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