Jamal Murray spent Thursday night hanging letters on the Lakers. Add it all up and he probably won five simultaneous “horse” games.
The problem for Murray, and Denver, is that you have to play “rhinoceros,” or something even more multi-syllabic, to beat the Lakers.
The letters were too plentiful and the limbs too long, especially the arm belonging to LeBron James, who turned away Murray’s drive on the final play that really mattered.
“LeBron asked for the assignment,” coach Frank Vogel said. “Naturally I granted it.”
The Lakers won Western Conference Final Game 4, 114-108, and took the same 3-1 series lead over Denver that Utah and the Clippers also held. Again, this might be a case of a different animal.
Murray made three anatomically impossible shots in the lane, one with his left hand while drifting away from the bucket, another with airborne fakery against James that ended with a flip from his hip and against the board and in.
How good is he? So good that Laker fans are undoubtedly telling each other that Murray has spent his entire brief life lusting to be a Laker and will be joining at the first opportunity, along with Giannis Antetokoumnpo and maybe, finally, Ralph Sampson.
When Anthony Davis fumbled away a pass with 3:10 left, the Lakers only led the Nuggets by three points. Murray got his usual handoff pass from Nikola Jokic and turned the corner toward the nylon.
This time James, at 35, cut him off and bothered his shot. The Lakers made enough free throws to get home, although they really won the game because they rebounded 21 of their own misses, including a nice back-tap by Davis and another rebound by Rajon Rondo. The Lakers had 25 second-chance points and needed them all to beat the ultimate second-chance team.
“Our commitment to hit people on the glass was far better in this game,” Vogel said.
“We had a lack of energy in Game 3,” said Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. “I think we came out with a lot more this time. We got the early lead and kept it the whole game.”
The best basketball teams always seem to have 20-man rosters. They don’t, of course, but the illusion happens when everyone, up and down the bench, brings a gift.
No matter what Murray did, the Lakers probably won the game when Dwight Howard got his first playoff start since 2015 and messed mightily with Jokic. Howard had four stick-back buckets in the first quarter alone and piled up 11 points and 10 rebounds in the first half.
That, along with foul trouble, denied Jokic any mojo. He missed all five shots in the fourth quarter, got to the foul line only twice the whole game, and had only four assists. Those pedestrian numbers from Jokic are not part of the Denver formula.
Neither, for that matter, is Murray going scoreless from the 3-point line. The fact that he can score 32 anyway, with an 8-for-8 foul-line performance, is just part of its inevitability.
But if you take away the degree-of-difficulty nature of what Murray did, the Lakers played the essential Nuggets to a standstill.
“Dwight just epitomizes how we want to play,” Vogel said. “We want to play harder than the other team. I just wanted to get Dwight in there more, instead of just bringing him into the second quarter.”
“Dwight was a beast,” James said.
The Lakers didn’t need Howard in the second half. They did need more Anthony Davis, who began the game with a 7-for-7 spree and scored 34, but they also needed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who is 11 for 24 from the 3-point line in the playoffs, and has played solidly throughout, and Kyle Kuzma, who was a part of the second-quarter drive that the Lakers were able to sustain.
“But the most important thing we did was keep from turning the ball over,” James said. The Lakers only coughed it up nine times.
James also cited a 28-for-35 free-throw performance by the Lakers, while the Nuggets went 20-for-23. The bigger and more muscular teams are supposed to go the line more often, which is why James chafed about his two foul shots in the Game 3 loss, when he played 37 minutes.
Vogel and the Lakers pointed it out to the NBA, too. So in Game 4, James was able to take 14 shots with the clock stopped, and he made 11.
That’s the reality that the rest of the NBA has preferred not to face. When James asks, somebody answers.