Murray blows minds, but Lakers’ defence shines late in Game 4 vs. Nuggets

Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray scores past the Los Angeles Lakers' Danny Green during the second half of an NBA conference final playoff basketball game Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

The Denver Nuggets must really like being down 3–1.

On Thursday night, they became the first NBA team — and will likely remain the only team for at least a very, very long time — to go down 3–1 three separate times in the same playoff run. 

Not that it was an academic win for the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, however. The game was tight throughout before the Lakers came up with a huge three-and-a-half minute defensive stand at the end of the fourth quarter to seal it 114–108.

Here are a few takeaways from the game:

All eyes on Murray

After Jamal Murray‘s performance in Game 3 — 28 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds in 44 minutes — Nuggets head coach Mike Malone and teammate Nikola Jokic both called him a “superstar,” and a bunch of national media seemed to agree. That’s as big a “reading his own press clippings” trap as there ever was. But it didn’t seem to affect Murray at all.

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He started 3-for-3 for six points in the game’s first four minutes en route to 32 in the game. 

Anything you can do…

Yes, Murray is a superstar. But the Lakers have two of those, too, and one of them came out of the gate even hotter than the guard from Kitchener, Ont. Anthony Davis scored the Lakers’ first 10 points, and started the game hitting his first seven shots.

Throughout the night, the Nuggets threw several defenders at him — from Jokic to Mason Plumlee to Paul Millsap — but none of them had much success. And when the Nuggets doubled, Davis found a couple of open shooters, leading to one clean early LeBron James look that resulted in three points.

He also had a hand in keeping Jokic’s contributions low, putting him in foul trouble and getting to the line a ton. Davis finished with 34 points on only 15 shots from the field — which is pretty damn good.

This is just a really nice pass

Did we mention Murray had a nice game? With the Lakers absolutely terrified of him putting the ball in the air in the first quarter, he drew the defence to him and did this:

Point: Vogel

I don’t want to say it, but here it is: the playoffs are about adjustments. The Lakers got killed on the glass in Game 3, getting outrebounded by the Nuggets 44–25. In that game, starting centre Javale McGee and backup Dwight Howard combined for two boards. 

So ahead of Game 4, Lakers head coach Frank Vogel moved Howard into the starting lineup, and was rewarded handsomely. Howard set the tone early in the first quarter with four straight points off putbacks. And he was just getting started. In the first half, he totalled 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting with 10 rebounds. 

And Howard wasn’t the only one getting in on the offensive glass. The Lakers outscored the Nuggets 18–2 on second-chance points in the first half alone — essentially nullifying Denver’s super-hot shooting performance — and went into the break up by five.

By the end of the game, the Lakers had bested their previous game’s rebound total by 16 and outboarded their opponents 41–33.

Yes, but back to Murray

Oh my:

After Murray hit that layup with 2:30 left in the second quarter, Reggie Miller said on the TNT broadcast that he’s going to get some Michael Jordan comparisons, and Chris Webber started laughing. He was going to say the same thing but thought he’d get killed for it. Guess not. So we’re officially in the “legitimate comparisons to MJ” stage of Murray’s insane playoff run.

The surge in appreciation for Murray isn’t just due to the consistency, efficiency and fourth-quarter bankability — it’s those things coupled with the degree of difficulty on a surprisingly large number of his shots. Spinning layups into shot-blockers? Faux-Euro-step straight-on bankers? Abrupt, no-lift floaters from in-between distances? He’s got all that and more, and he’s one of the most exciting players in the NBA because of it.

Shooting guards

Danny Green has taken some heat from Lakers fans and general NBA watchers for his poor shooting in these playoffs, but what if I told you he hasn’t even been the worst-shooting starting shooting guard in this series?

After averaging 10.7 points on 50 per cent shooting (41.7 percent from deep) with nearly two steals per game in the Clippers series, Nuggets guard Gary Harris is putting up 4.5 points on sub-25 per cent shooting against the Lakers. He put up just three points Thursday in a playoff-low 19 minutes.

Suddenly Green’s 7.8 points on 28.6 per cent shooting in the first three games don’t look that bad. (Sort of.)

Shutdown defence

Despite the fact that Jokic had a rare quiet performance, the Nuggets kept this game within reach thanks to Murray — seriously, did we mention him? — and solid contributions from Jerami Grant, Michael Porter Jr. and Monte Morris, who finished with 17, 13 and 12 points, respectively.

But in the waning minutes of the game, James took over primary defence on Murray. While the four-time MVP had had a relatively quiet offensive night to that point — he finished with 26 points on eight-of-17 shooting — he took centre stage as he forced Murray into two missed running bank shots, which, given how the night had gone to that point, was kind of jarring. (Full disclosure: Slow-mo replay of one of the shots made one James shot contest look like a foul, but it wasn’t called.)

After the game, Vogel told reporters James asked for the assignment.

“LeBron asked for the assignment and obviously I granted it. He did a great job down the stretch,” Vogel said. “Nothing was really working to slow him down until LeBron took that assignment, so game ball to him.”

The Nuggets managed to shrink the Laker lead to three points on Morris’s and-one at the 3:28 mark, but missed all five of their shots afterwards. Game, Lakers, and now the Nuggets are left trying to come back from 3–1 — for a third time.

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