DENVER — After all of the debate and consternation about flopping in the Lakers’ previous series, maybe it was an effective acting job that, perversely, did them in on Thursday night.
The cold, hard numbers say that the Denver Nuggets controlled the fourth quarter, burying the Lakers with a Rocky Mountain blizzard of 3-pointers – four of them by Jamal Murray in a 23-point quarter – en route to a 108-103 decision that put L.A. down 2-0 in the best-of-seven Western Conference finals.
But consider: The Nuggets went on a 20-6 run to take control of that fourth quarter after LeBron James got away with a particularly egregious flop at the start of the quarter, actually pushing himself away from Nikola Jokic, gliding across the floor (and getting drenched by a courtside spectator’s beverage), and selling it well enough to get a foul called on Denver’s star center.
LeBron said Lakers don’t flop lmaoooo pic.twitter.com/2ZBtxFfJ0U
— Tedd Buddwell (@TedBuddy8) May 19, 2023
No, the flop by itself didn’t decide anything, and maybe it was just a coincidence that the Nuggets went on their run immediately afterward. More significantly, Murray’s jump shot returned from vacation down the stretch. He made three of his first 15 from the field Thursday night but eight of his last nine, six of them during that decisive fourth quarter. The first of his four 3-pointers put Denver ahead to stay 84-83 with 9:18 left, the last for a 99-87 edge with 4:55 left.
It wasn’t over yet. Austin Reaves’ 3-pointer pulled the Lakers within 101-99 with 1:06 left, but they had to foul and Murray, an 83.3% free-throw shooter during the regular season and 92.0% in the playoffs before Thursday, had the ball on four straight trips down the floor. He made seven of eight to seal the deal.
And maybe that’s an indication of what made the Nuggets the top seed in the West, and what has made them such a tough out and especially tough at home.
“Even when we’re struggling we don’t lose belief in what we can do,” Murray said. “We play like the No. 1 seed and we believe we are the No. 1 seed and we back it up. Even when we’re struggling, we’re a resilient team. We know how to adjust and reset and focus.
“We get a couple of stops, K (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) hit a big three and they called timeout. So yeah, sometimes it’s just a couple possessions that change the whole game and it’s just an energy thing. I thought we had a lot of belief in our ability to rally tonight and get the ‘W’.”
Denver is, as Lakers coach Darvin Ham acknowledged, “a championship-caliber team.” And they are undefeated at home in these playoffs, so holding serve in this series probably shouldn’t have been unexpected. The Lakers’ job now is to make their home court just as inhospitable in Games 3 and 4 as Denver’s has been at the start of this series.
Unfortunately, reminding their visitors that they’re at sea level probably isn’t going to be very effective. The Nuggets’ game operations staff has played the elevation card to the hilt, and while it might be more for the benefit of the fans than it is an attempt to play with the visitors’ minds, Denver’s 5,280-foot elevation does matter.
The routine here includes reminding visitors of the altitude every chance they get. pic.twitter.com/jAIuxSJXjh
— Jim_Alexander (@Jim_Alexander) May 19, 2023
Again, if your stars play well, your chances are better.
Jokic finished with yet another triple-double, 23 points, 17 rebounds and 12 assists, his 13th career triple-double (and seventh of this postseason) to move him past Russell Westbrook on the all-time playoff list behind No. 2 James (28) and No. 1 Magic Johnson (30). Jokic is averaging a triple-double in these playoffs through 13 games: 30.3 points, 13.7 rebounds and 10.2 assists. His multi-faceted game is as dependable as it gets.
Murray, who had been bothered by what was reported as an ear infection and was considered questionable before Game 1, had 31 points Tuesday night and finished with 37 Thursday night, along with 10 rebounds and five assists, again with the sizzling finish after a chilly beginning.
The Lakers’ largest contributions came from role players, Reaves (22 points on 8-for-16 shooting) and Rui Hachimura (21 points on 8-for-10 shooting, plus more than serviceable defense on Jokic).
As for the Lakers’ stars, James finished with 22 points on 9-for-19 shooting. He was 0 for 6 from 3-point range – a shot that he has had more confidence in than he should, given that he’s now 21 for 96 (21.8%) from behind the arc in the postseason. And he also had the embarrassment of having the ball slip out of his hands as he was going up for a reverse dunk early in the second quarter. (The next breakaway he had, he just went straight in and flushed it.)
LeBron blew the dunk pic.twitter.com/bRvv3lGYGh
— ESPN (@espn) May 19, 2023
“Obviously that sucks that the ball squirted out of my hand like that, whatever the case may be,” James said. “Maybe hit my knee or whatever, but unforced turnover by myself. Horrible. Especially on the road.”
The Lakers needed more from Anthony Davis, as well. Two days after going for 40 points, he finished with 18 points, 14 rebounds and four blocked shots, though he contributed a huge 3-pointer from the corner to keep his team close at 99-94 with 3:38 left.
“But I guarantee you if you ask any coach in any basketball if you wanted those two on their team they would take them in a heartbeat,” Reaves said.
“It’s basketball. It’s all sports. You have good days, you have not-so-good days and you wake up the next morning and have a great day.”
But how many of those days are left? After a springtime of unexpected success, the Lakers might have finally run up against the immovable object.
“You have to be ready to guard a little bit of everything” against Denver, Ham said. “It’s no one thing that you are going to be able to take away and it’s going to shut them down. There are multiple ways to beat you, multiple actions, multiple players that can just get hot as we just saw.”
The task now?
“Our thing is to not get disappointed, not get discouraged,” he said. “Just compete, continue to compete at a high level, and if they make a shot highly contested, then we have to live with it and go back and try to do the same.”
It is an old NBA adage, which might have been coined by Pat Riley, that a series doesn’t really start until the visiting team wins a game. But in this case, if the visiting Nuggets win Saturday in L.A., the series – and what has until now been a fun Lakers postseason – might be almost over, too.
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