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The Lakers’ party is winding down and a big bill is about to come due

LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers find themselves in an 0-3 hole against the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference finals, raising questions about what should be a complicated and expensive offseason. (Ashley Landis/AP)
7 min

LOS ANGELES — Life for the Los Angeles Lakers has been good, and perhaps a little too good to be true, since early February, when the long-awaited trade of Russell Westbrook reversed 18 months of negative momentum and put LeBron James and Anthony Davis back on a playoff path.

A team whose fortunes were so stunted by the 2021 trade for Westbrook was suddenly enjoying an endless spring break. The carefree Lakers went 16-7 after All-Star Weekend and claimed the Western Conference’s seventh seed with a gutsy comeback victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves in the play-in tournament. From there, they schooled the immature Memphis Grizzlies in the first round and dethroned the Golden State Warriors in the conference semifinals.

Entering Saturday, the Lakers were 12-1 at home since March 18 — including wins in their first six playoff games at Arena by an average of 18.3 points. The crowd of celebrities swelled with each successive victory: Jack Nicholson, Denzel Washington, Adele, Michael B. Jordan, Kim Kardashian, Kendall Jenner and countless others claimed courtside seats. This wasn’t quite “Showtime,” but the past two months have been an unexpectedly fun show.

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The Denver Nuggets came through town and killed the good vibes Saturday, claiming a 119-108 Game 3 victory to take a 3-0 series lead in the Western Conference finals. As Denver used a flurry of three-pointers to take a double-digit lead midway through the fourth quarter, Eddie Murphy decided the party was over and headed for an early exit. Many in the unusually subdued crowd soon followed the Beverly Hills Cop’s lead and fled the scene.

James and Davis aren’t officially done yet, but no team in NBA history has won a seven-game playoff series after losing the first three games. Denver, with its mighty offense and dynamic duo of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, can clinch its first trip to the NBA Finals as soon as Monday’s Game 4. For the Lakers, the prospect of a sweep, which seemed unthinkable entering the series, is a harsh reminder that a challenging and expensive summer awaits.

Game 3 was a frustrating but deserved loss for the Lakers, who failed to capitalize at key moments. Jokic endured a rare off night, failing to score for the first 15 minutes and picking up his fourth foul with more than seven minutes remaining in the third quarter. Yet Los Angeles was unable to build a cushion with the two-time MVP on the sideline, and a rested Jokic finally returned at the start of the fourth quarter to help key a late-game push.

“I did see poise tonight,” Nuggets Coach Michael Malone said. “With Nikola going out, there wasn’t a panic. It was, ‘Okay, he’s out; that means somebody else has to step up.’ I think that’s something our team has done time and time again.”

With Jokic back, the Nuggets ripped off a decisive 13-0 run midway through the fourth quarter with crisp ball movement, hustle plays and clutch three-pointers. Reserves Jeff Green and Bruce Brown hit from deep during the push, and the 6-foot-4 Brown beat the Lakers’ front line to a crucial tip-in.

Los Angeles’s defense couldn’t plug every hole: Five Denver players finished in double figures, and the Nuggets shot 17 for 41 from beyond the arc, including five three-pointers in the fourth quarter.

“That was the game,” James lamented. “It’s been the supporting cast that have made those timely shots that’s allowed [Denver] to have the edge.”

Murray and Jokic brought home the win with a two-man dance they have perfected during their six seasons together. Murray scored a game-high 37 points, including 30 before halftime, and Jokic shook off his slow start to finish with 24 points, six rebounds and eight assists.

The Lakers were left with more scapegoats than answers.

D’Angelo Russell, a key addition at the trade deadline, struggled for the third straight game, scoring just three points on eight shots while playing 20 minutes. Lakers Coach Darvin Ham had hailed Russell as “one of our biggest weapons” before Game 3, but his faith wasn’t rewarded. Remarkably, the Lakers are minus-53 with Russell on the court and plus-31 with him off the court through three games. Removing Russell from the Game 4 starting lineup therefore appears to be the most obvious adjustment at Ham’s disposal.

Jarred Vanderbilt, a defensive-minded forward who quickly became a fan favorite upon his February arrival, has continued to fade from the rotation. His lack of shooting tends to junk up the Lakers’ offensive spacing, a problem that resurfaced after he was reinserted into the starting lineup for the past two games. Vanderbilt could easily get benched again for Game 4 after managing just two points in 14 minutes.

Backup guard Dennis Schröder was a pesky defender against the Warriors, but he has had little success in slowing Murray, who has lit up the Lakers through three games. Schröder had more fouls (six) than points (five) in Game 3, contributing to Los Angeles’s shaky scoring balance. Similarly, backup guard Lonnie Walker IV offered nine points off the bench but was regularly torched on defense.

“They did the best they could,” Ham said of the Lakers’ role players. “All of them. They competed. I’m disappointed, but I’m not upset. It sucks to lose, but those guys fought their hearts out.”

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Facing huge responsibilities on both ends and with unreliable complementary firepower at his disposal, James again struggled to sustain his impact across his game-high 43 minutes. The 38-year-old star finished with 23 points, seven rebounds and 12 assists, yet he was unable to consistently get to the basket as he had in crucial moments against the Grizzlies and Warriors.

Take all those developments together, and it’s no wonder that Los Angeles hasn’t kept pace with Denver, which improved to 11-3 in the playoffs after claiming the West’s top seed with a 53-29 record. If history holds and the Nuggets advance, the Lakers will be forced to confront a hidden risk of their deadline overhaul: Several of their additions were rentals who will be in line for lucrative new deals.

Russell, 27, will be expecting a long-term contract that reflects his status as a starting point guard who is in his prime and has an all-star selection on his résumé. Meanwhile, Rui Hachimura, who was acquired from the Washington Wizards for three second-round picks in January, has surpassed expectations with his consistent scoring throughout this Lakers postseason run. Any hope of re-signing the 25-year-old forward on a cut-rate contract has dissipated over the past four weeks.

Austin Reaves, Schröder and Walker are among the other rotation players who are set to be free agents. The Lakers’ highest priority should be the 24-year-old Reaves, who went undrafted in 2021 but has blossomed into the team’s third-best player. As a skilled scorer, savvy playmaker and tireless defender, Reaves could command a four-year contract worth more than $80 million from interested outside suitors.

Though they already have committed more than $87 million to James and Davis for next season, the Lakers must pay whatever it takes to retain Reaves; otherwise, they risk slipping back out of the playoff picture.

Retaining Reaves will probably mean that there isn’t enough money available to keep everyone else in town, and the Lakers will have few avenues to add significant talent because they already have sent out most of their future draft assets in past trades. That’s too bad, because Jokic has exposed Los Angeles’s need for another big man to lighten the physical toll absorbed by James and Davis.

For now, the Lakers must focus on extending their series with the Nuggets rather than fretting about their complicated offseason. But even if Jokic keeps pounding away and Murray never cools off, the Lakers should savor what remains of these good times. There’s no telling how long they will continue.

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