DENVER — LeBron James used to be the playoff Swiss army knife, putting cold water on your best player while controlling it on the other end.
We saw it against Derrick Rose more than a decade ago, and now Rose’s polar opposite is standing in front of James for long periods of time, draining any energy James has left as he tries to engineer an upset.
James and the rest of the Lakers could shut down the Denver Nuggets in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, where Jamal Murray took center stage in the fourth quarter en route to a 108-103 victory at the Ball Arena.
The shooting of James left him in this series, illustrating the fact that he is, in fact, 38 years old and no longer operates with an endless reservoir of energy. Murray was undeterred by whatever defense the Lakers threw at him in the fourth, rallying from a slow start to score 23 of his game-high 37 points.
Bubble Murray? Let’s call her May Murray now.
On the other hand, James is struggling.
He missed all six of his 3-point attempts, and while he matched up admirably against Nikola Jokić, he and Anthony Davis seemed to have enough left in the tank to hold off the Nuggets in the fourth.
He missed one of the young breakaway dunks in the first half, much to the delight of the Ball Arena crowd. And several times when the Lakers looked like they had the Nuggets on a leash, leading by 11 early in the third quarter, they couldn’t stop them.
James called the freak accident, “terrible.”
“Obviously, that bounced that ball out of my hand like that, whatever the situation, maybe hit my knee or whatever, but didn’t force a turnover myself,” James said. “Those are momentum plays.”
And now the Lakers are on the ropes, losing two straight games for the first time in more than two months and not stealing a road game unlike their first two playoff opponents.
“They are like us, they are undefeated at home. We knew it was going to be a challenge,” said Lakers coach Darvin Ham. “A tough, tough one at that. And we say this before we play a game, we’ve got to buckle up and buckle up, buckle down and buckle up because we plan on it being a long series.
James stepped on the foot of Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon, who may have rubbed the injured foot that caused him to miss several weeks during the regular season. Although he committed all his players to Saturday’s Game 3, it revealed the weakness of this very optimistic plan for the Lakers.
Stars must be stars, and the Nuggets’ headliners rose again while the Lakers’ mainstays couldn’t catch up. This Lakers thing only works when the stars are stars — and on a generational level, too. Making Rui Hachimura a good performance (making his first eight attempts) will be increased if James and Davis play to their standards, in fact he delayed the inevitable Thursday.
The Lakers duo each played 40 minutes again, and with games coming up every other day, including travel between the two cities, you wonder if fatigue was a factor — if it wasn’t.
Davis hasn’t missed a game in two months — March 15 was his last game of inactivity — his longest streak outside of the 2020 Orlando bubble where everyone has a four-month layoff. rest before resuming play.
“I mean, if you’re not tired in the postseason — I mean, everybody is,” James said.
Davis had his first playoff sniff in a long time, perhaps somewhat predictably after his 40-point outburst in Game 1.
He scored 18 with 14 rebounds and 4 blocked shots but didn’t have nearly as much of an impact on the game as expected—although the Nuggets seemed to hit it all in the fourth, going on a streak of five consecutive 3-pointers. pointers returned. a 2 point Laker lead to a 12 point Nuggets lead in four minutes.
Jokić had the luxury of being a decoy at the time, along with Murray, Bruce Brown and Michael Porter Jr. “Bang!” call after his final triple at the 4:57 mark.
The two-time MVP did another triple-double with 23 points, 17 rebounds and 12 assists while giving up space to Murray, who continued to burn the Laker guards. Porter Jr. made four triples to score 16, and while he hasn’t exploded in this series, the Lakers should watch out for him in the next two games.
The Lakers have no confidence or options here. Austin Reaves also has teams ready to back up the Brinks truck in July with another strong showing, and in theory, D’Angelo Russell and Dennis Schröder are due for bounce-backs. performance, especially coming home for two games.
But the question of Jokić is something the Lakers have yet to prove they can handle. Ham was a member of the 2004 Detroit Pistons team that upset the Lakers in the NBA Finals, with their late-prime Shaquille O’Neal strategy of letting him get by himself and shut everyone down.
“Yes, we have AD, but if you can call Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace, Elden Campbell, tell them I have a one-day or a series contract for them,” Ham said before the game. “That team, we’ve got guys — nobody can stop Shaq one-on-one, but we’ve got some scary bodies that we can run at him.”
Even those generational defenders will shake their heads at Jokić’s mastery.
Put Davis on him, and while Davis can win his share of matchups, it limits his ability as a team defender.
Put James on him for long periods of time, and you’ll take advantage of the chance that James won’t have enough left in the tank to shut down. James missed a 3-pointer in the final minute of Game 1, and Game 2 had too many.
For the playoffs, James was 1-for-20 on 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, and for the playoffs he shot 23.3% from there.
“He’s open, they play him. He’s a highly capable 3-point shooter, he lets it fly,” Ham said. “Again, like I always say, love and live in the paint. That allows for some of these 3-pointers attempts to be more open and more rhythmic.
It’s the Nuggets right now in a rhythm, and even if the “no respect card” used by Nuggets coach Michael Malone feels like a cheap ploy, they’re using it as fuel to get closer and closer to the Finals.