Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone stared at the box score he clutched in his right hand, studying the tangible confirmation of how the Lakers had ripped out a piece of his team's heart.
The Nuggets, who had erased 3-1 series deficits against the Utah Jazz and the Clippers in the first two rounds of the NBA playoffs, were adding to their reputation for resilience on Sunday as they tried to pull even with the Lakers two games into the Western Conference finals. They led with 2.1 seconds left in the fourth quarter, fueled by a spree of 12 consecutive clutch points from Nikola Jokic, and were on the brink of something big.
They weren't facing the Clippers, who had wilted under duress. They were seconds from subduing the Lakers, the No. 1 seed in the West, a team that historically thrives under pressure. It was a big moment for the emergent Nuggets. "We were this close from getting the win," forward Michael Porter Jr. said, holding his fingers a hair's breadth apart.
That tiny space was enough for the Lakers to bust through, taking advantage of a miscommunication among the Nuggets' defenders to earn a 105-103 victory on Anthony Davis' buzzer-beating three-point shot. And although losing by a small margin on the game's final possession can be considered progress for the Nuggets after they were blown out in the series opener, coming close was no consolation to Malone.
"No, no silver linings. This is the Western Conference finals," he said. "So, no moral victories, no silver linings.
"Losing sucks. I mean, that's the bottom line. Losing sucks. Some guys like to win, some guys hate to lose. And I think we're a group of guys that hate to lose. Whether it be by 20-something points in Game 1 or at the buzzer (on Sunday) it counts as the same. The only thing you can talk about is that we were in the game (on Sunday) and they had to rely on a great shot by a great player to beat us at the buzzer."
Actually, it was a great shot by one of the Lakers' two great players - and that's the most vexing challenge for the Nuggets. They knew the Lakers would draw up the final play for Davis or for LeBron James but still couldn't defend it. "I think I was right there, but as soon as he shot the ball, he shot it really well. I kind of felt it was going in," Jokic said. "Great, great players make great shots. And he did it, so he's a really good player.
"They have two really good, really good, really good players. They have LeBron, who is probably the best player in the league, and they have AD, who is probably the best scorer in the league. It's not easy to figure them out. They're really talented. We can just make it tough and make them feel uncomfortable maybe, but they're really talented and they're going to find solutions. We need to stay on top and make them uncomfortable."
The Nuggets trailed by 10 points at the half but put the squeeze on the Lakers in the second half, holding them to 22 points in the third quarter and 23 in the fourth. "We did a much better job of taking away their transition," Malone said. "That was a huge point of emphasis going in, so to clean that up allowed us to be in the game.
"Our defense will keep us in games. We're 8-8 in the postseason, and in our eight wins our defense has been great. And we gave ourselves a chance tonight, but unfortunately Anthony Davis hits an incredible shot to kind of take that win away from us. But the defensive transition was tremendous. If we can continue that, we'll continue to give ourselves a chance."