The Los Angeles Lakers took a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference finals with a 114-108 win over the Denver Nuggets in Game 4 on Thursday. It was a close game throughout, but the Lakers gained the lead early in the first quarter and never relinquished it despite multiple late runs from Denver.
The Lakers were once again led by LeBron James (26 points, nine rebounds, eight assists) and Anthony Davis (34 points, five rebounds, three steals), with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope putting up 13 points and making some big plays down the stretch. Jamal Murray was simply spectacular for the Nuggets, scoring 32 points on 12-of-20 shooting to go with eight assists, but he was unable to bring his team all the way back. Denver didn't get its usual production from Nikola Jokic, who finished with 16 points after missing several minutes of the fourth quarter due to foul trouble.
Denver now faces a 3-1 series deficit but, of course, that's nothing new for them. The Nuggets became the first NBA team to come back from two 3-1 deficits in the same postseason by winning their two previous series, and now they'll need to do it again to avoid elimination. Meanwhile, the Lakers will look to advance to the NBA Finals with a win in Game 5 on Saturday. Here are four takeaways from Game 4.
1. Blindsided on the boards
If you took an alien who had never seen the game of basketball before and sat it down to watch Thursday's game, even it would ask (in its native language and/or telepathy, of course) why the yellow team was grabbing the ball so much more than the team wearing black. Seemingly every time it looked like the Nuggets were about to get a huge defensive stop, one of the Lakers would swoop in to keep the possession alive.
The Lakers outrebounded the Nuggets 43-31, including a 12 to six advantage in offensive rebounds. Los Angeles took advantage, scoring 25 second-chance points, which Denver coach Michael Malone said was "the reason we lost this game." A big reason for the disparity on the boards was Dwight Howard, who started in place of JaVale McGee and played with energy and athleticism from the opening tip. He finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds (six offensive) in 22 minutes.
"Dwight was phenomenal for the minutes that he played, got us extra shots when we were missing early on," James said after the game. "We needed that out of him -- it was vintage him. He's been a league leader in rebounds for a lot of times in his career, so that was big time. We knew coming into this game that we didn't rebound at all last game and they dominated us, so we were just trying to turn the tide."
The Nuggets outrebounded the Lakers 44-25 in their Game 3 win, and that was flipped on its head in Game 4. Murray said that the onus is on the guards to get into the paint and take some of the pressure off of the bigs when it comes to rebounding.
"The guards have to rebound more. I only had three rebounds today," Murray said after the loss. "I got to get in there and be more physical, even take a couple. I don't think I had any fouls. I just got to go and hit somebody, try to help my teammates out."
2. LeBron takes on the challenge
The Nuggets kept the game close enough that another Jamal Murray late-game outburst may have been enough to get them the win, but unfortunately for Denver, it never came. In the final six minutes of the game, Murray scored just four points and was held without a field goal. For some of those possessions, he was guarded by James, who said afterward that he used his length, athleticism, and basketball IQ on Murray to defend him withot fouling.
One of the key possessions of the game came with just under three minutes left when Murray drove to the basket with a chance to cut the lead to one point. Instead, he was met at the rim by James and missed the layup, leading to a Rajon Rondo mid-range jumper. The Nuggets weren't able to cut the lead to less than five after the sequence.
"I knew it was winning time, and Jamal had it going. The kid is special," James said after the game. "For me, it's just trusting my defensive keys. Trusting my study of film. Trusting personnel. And living with the results. I told my teammates that I had him and everyone else can kind of stay at bay and stay home. I was able to get a couple stops and we were able to rebound the basketball, which is the most important thing."
3. Quiet night for the Joker
Murray had 32 points. Jerami Grant had 17. Michael Porter Jr. and Monte Morris scored 13 and 12, respectively. That's usually enough for Denver to win, but Jokic, who came into the game averaging 25.2 points per game, finished with just 16. He was hampered by foul trouble in the fourth quarter but, even before that, he was not aggressive looking for his own shot. Jokic can dominate games with his passing, but he needs to be a scoring threat at all times to open up those lanes for his teammates. Shooting only 13 times from the field and only two free throws won't get it done for Denver on most nights. Look for Jokic to come out much more aggressively as the Nuggets face elimination in Game 5.
4. Here we go again
You probably got sick of reading the unending "the Nuggets have the Lakers right where they want them!" tweets following the game, but you simply can't ignore what Denver has done this postseason. They're 6-0 facing elimination and are fresh off dispatching the presumptive title favorite Los Angeles Clippers in an extraordinary fashion. Are the Lakers more talented than the Jazz? Yes. Are the Lakers more cohesive than the Clippers? Absolutely. Can the Nuggets beat the Lakers three straight times to advance to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history? After what we've seen, you just can't count it out. The fun begins on Saturday.