Lakers coach Frank Vogel inserted Dwight Howard into the Lakers starting lineup for Game 4, and the 34-year-old promptly led an offensive rebounding clinic.
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Jamal Murray is not here for your participation trophy, your praise, or your conspiracy theories about the refs. He has no interest in being the villain in the latest season of The LeBron James Show. Murray played Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals like he expects to win a championship. His Nuggets lost, which can only mean one thing: Murray will play Game 5 like he expects to win a championship.
The Lakers beat the Nuggets, 114-108, to take a 3-1 series lead, and this is when we reach into our bottomless bag of cliches to say the Lakers “seized control.” Well, tell that to Murray. The breakout star of these playoffs scored 32 points, including two buckets that would make anybody’s mixtape: An up-and-down-and-up-and-around layup, and a spin-then-hop-to-the-left-and-fire-with-the-left-hand leaner. Murray cedes nothing.
Murray walked into his postgame press conference with ice on his knees, a paper cup in hand, and very little interest in niceties. He rarely looked up. Asked how frustrating it was to never quite take the lead in the fourth quarter, he said, “Frustrating,” then barely elaborated. Asked how big of a difference the Lakers’ offensive rebounding made, he said, “It was the difference.” When it was over, he trudged slowly out of the gym and let out an “ugh!” of frustration. He clearly expected this series to be tied right now.
The Nuggets came back from 3-1 series deficits against the Jazz and Clippers. That is a big ask now. A James team has never blown a 3-1 lead. But it would be stunning if the Nuggets roll over in Game 5. Murray won’t allow it. He is averaging 26.5 points and making 54.8 percent of his shots in this series. The Lakers can’t stay with him. In the last three games, Murray sat for a total of 11 minutes.
“I’m running the poor kid into the ground, but when I take him out, things seem to go sideways in a hurry,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “And he’s getting the best of everybody.”
The Nuggets left Game 4 knowing they played poorly for long stretches, battled unfriendly whistles, and still almost won. The Lakers have two fundamental advantages over the Nuggets.
One is that, as brilliant as Murray has been, and as great as Nikola Jokic is, there is still no combination in the NBA quite like James and Anthony Davis.
The other advantage is size. The Lakers have a ton of it, which gives Lakers coach Frank Vogel so many options. Vogel inserted Howard in the starting lineup in place of Javale McGee, and Howard made L.A. an offensive-rebounding machine.
Asked how much the offensive rebounding contributed to his team’s loss, Malone said, “Almost all of it. It was a huge number (12) and it was like that the whole night. Dwight Howard had six. Nobody touched him at all in the first quarter.”
Murray said: “We’re just trying to be physical and not pick up fouls. Dwight Howard is absolutely trying to muscle his way in, and not care if he gets called for a foul because they have how many bigs over there?”
And speaking of fouls: Between Games 3 and 4, the Lakers called the NBA to complain that James was getting hacked. The exact words, one presumes: “We are the Lakers and he is LeBron James. Treat us accordingly.” The Nuggets had already grumbled a bit about the officiating, which proves they really do understand the playoffs. The Lakers’ call did not sit well with them, especially after Murray was bumped a few times in Game 5 and no foul was called.
“I think I’m going to have to go through the proper channels like they did to see if we can figure out how we can get some more free throws,” Malone said.
Did the Lakers’ complaining work?
“I don’t know,” Malone said. “I think late in the game Jamal Murray attacked the basket a few times where it appeared to be contact. We’ll watch the film and send our clips in. … Whether them going through the proper channels affected tonight or not, I have no idea. The NBA does a great job of listening. You hope that next game maybe some of those fouls are called.”
Malone successfully made his point without whining too much. He can’t have his players think they are just getting hosed by the officials. They need to match the Lakers’ physicality. Jokic said, “The rebounding was the problem. We kind of played good defense and at the end we didn’t rebound … Too much fouls. They were on the line too much times.”
Jokic bemoaned “cheap fouls,” but he seemed to mean dumb fouls: “We can be a little bit smarter with not giving them easy points on the line.” They can, and judging from how they have responded throughout the postseason, they will. Maybe one more comeback from a 3-1 deficit is too hard, even for this team. But Murray and the Nuggets believed they could do it against Utah and did. They believed they could do it against the Clippers and did. They’re not going to give up now.