The Denver Nuggets have gotten this far in the playoffs thanks in large part to the heroics of their young guard, Jamal Murray. Entering Game 4 of the Western Conference finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, Murray was ninth in the entire playoffs in scoring at 26.6 points per game, and he was getting an average of 9.4 of them in fourth quarters. Only Donovan Mitchell had scored more in the final frame among postseason performers in the bubble.
So when they trailed in the fourth quarter on Thursday night, it was little surprise they put the ball in the hands of their budding star -- especially with Nikola Jokic struggling to get into a rhythm because of foul trouble. And early on, he did his thing, scoring six points in a two-minute burst, including a remarkable turnaround with his left hand that was somehow not his best shot of the night.
Enter LeBron James.
After that basket with a little more than six minutes left, LeBron took over the responsibility of guarding Murray. The Canadian didn't make another shot down the stretch, his only contributions coming at the free throw line. Without Murray leading the way, the Nuggets weren't able to overtake the Lakers, and Los Angeles escaped with a 114-108 win to take a 3-1 series lead.
"Hell of a player, one of the hottest guys we have in the bubble today out of the four teams remaining. So I just wanted to try to take the challenge," LeBron said about the matchup change in his on-court interview postgame. It wasn't quite as simple as LeBron locking him up, however. Let's take a look, possession by possession, at what happened in the LeBron-Murray matchup.
Possession 1: LeBron fouls Murray
The first time LeBron guards Murray, it doesn't go so well. Murray puts together some dribbling moves, creates an angle and puts his head down to get to the rim, and LeBron cuts him off and is called for the foul.
Possession 2: Murray turnover
On the second possession, we do get some brilliant LeBron defense. He chases Murray around some screens like he's 25 again, fights through a Jokic screen, and helps force a turnover.
Possession 3: Millsap 3 off the kick from Murray
Next time down the floor, Murray gets the better of LeBron. He's far too quick for him on the perimeter, and gets into the lane, draws the defense and whips a nifty pass out to Paul Millsap in the corner, and he buries the triple.
Possession 4: Millsap turnover
The Nuggets play through Millsap in the post here, and he turns it over. Nothing too exciting.
Possession 5: LeBron denies Murray at the rim
This time down the floor, Murray tries to go to work. He makes an awesome move to get into the paint, but when he tries to go up against LeBron at the rim, the veteran is too big and strong. Murray gets stuck in the air, and throws up a prayer that has no chance. There was definitely some contact here, but probably not enough for a foul -- though we'll get to that topic later.
Possession 6: Morris and-one
Monte Morris gets the call here and converts a strong and-one.
Possession 7: LeBron shuts down (fouls?) Murray at the rim
This is the big one. With three minutes left, the Nuggets have the ball down by three, and Murray drives to the rim, where he once again challenges LeBron. The end result is the same as it was a few possessions earlier, with Murray flat on his back and the Lakers going the other way. On this occasion, however, it seems pretty clear that LeBron fouls Murray. He makes contact with the body, and replay from the baseline shows him hitting Murray's wrist after the ball is released.
After the game, Nuggets coach Mike Malone joked that he needed to "go through the proper channels" like the Lakers did in order to get his guys calls. Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green chimed in on Twitter, saying, "He hasn't earned that call against Bron in that moment."
If Murray gets that call, it's obviously a huge swing, as he would have gone to the line with a chance to make it a one-point game. Instead, the Lakers go the other way, and Rajon Rondo hits a jumper to make it a five-point game. The Nuggets never got closer.
Possession 8: Morris misses 3
Murray gives the ball up early on the pick-and-roll, and the Nuggets wind up with a good look from 3 from Morris, but he misses. Another big swing, as he could have made it a two-point game.
Possession 9: Jokic miss
At this point, the Nuggets are in trouble down seven with two minutes left. Murray plays off ball this time, as Jokic goes to work in the post. He ends up missing a shot in the lane, which pretty much seals Denver's fate.
Possession 10: Morris fouls Murray
Murray tries to make something happen, and puts his head down off the screen, drawing a foul from Markieff Morris. He goes to the line and makes both free throws.
Possession 11: Caruso fouls Murray
The Nuggets are scrambling at this point. Alex Caruso gets switched onto Murray, who ends up drawing a foul on a drive to the rim. He makes both, but it's too little, too late.
Possession 12: Jokic airballs a 3, Millsap gets fouled
Again, Nuggets are desperate. Jokic airballs a 3 off the inbounds. Millsap ends up getting fouled in the chase for the loose ball.
Possession 13: Murray misses 3
Last possession for the Nuggets, as Murray races up the floor and misses a 3-pointer against Rondo. Game over.
In total, there were 13 offensive possessions for the Nuggets after LeBron started guarding Murray, and the Nuggets guard went 0-3 from the field, turned it over once, drew three fouls (4 of 4 on free throws) and had one assist. He was also unlucky not to get to the line for two more free throws on the clear foul by LeBron, and furthermore helped set up a wide open 3 for Morris, which could have made it a two-point game with two and a half minutes to go.
So, yes, LeBron deserves credit for demanding and taking on the responsibility. He helped get some big stops, and made life much tougher for Murray and the Nuggets than it was late in Game 3. At the same time, it wasn't as simple as LeBron stepping in and completely locking Murray up to clinch the win. That's the narrative that will likely come out of this game, but it wasn't exactly what happened.