Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets were two opposite ends of the basketball spectrum. The offensive showcase of Game 1 gave way to the defensive-minded, cold-shot affair of Game 2. LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic combined for 100 points on 35-of-56 shooting in Game 1. Thursday night, they totaled just 63 points on 22-of-55 shooting. Denver led for 47 minutes in Game 1. Los Angeles led for 32 minutes in Game 2.
Among the few commonalities this week were the Nuggets winning both contests and jamal murray tearing apart the Lakers defense on a pair of 30-point runs. The 25-year-old has again demonstrated his ability to level up in the playoffs, averaging 34 points (68.4 percent on real shots), 7.5 rebounds, five assists and 3.5 steals against the Lakers. .
Through 2.5 quarters of Game 2, a 31-point Game 1 encore seemed almost implausible to Murray. After opening the night 2-for-3 with six points, he missed on 11 of his next 12 attempts and was working on a 3-for-15 performance filled with short and off-center misses. He clearly looked like a person trying to play a professional sport. with an ear infection. But then, she went up in flames. He buried eight of his last nine shots, including seven in a row. He made four 3-pointers in the middle of that flurry. His 3-for-15 effort came to a screeching halt and U-turned into a 37 point 11 by 24 supernova display.
After Los Angeles dealt Davis Aaron Gordon so he could use Jokic as a helper midway through the third quarter, the Nuggets’ offense lost some of its luster, though it already struggled to build all night. Jokic, who scored 21 of his 23 points before the nine-minute mark in the third, missed a series of reliable shots and went 1-for-8 down the stretch. Davis’ patrolling and Gordon’s discomfort with that approach muddied the waters for everyone involved.
Murray stepped up with 23 points in the fourth quarter. The sixth-year guard presents substantial problems for the Los Angeles defense, primarily through two means: pick-and-roll and turnovers. When the Lakers use coverage against him, he’s setting them on fire. Whether it’s Davis or James, Murray is finding the space he needs to get to his jumper and throw flames. Davis playing level or switching completely has worked better.
The Lakers are alternating between going under and over Murray’s screens. They started with the former in Game 1, switched to the latter late, and opened that way in Game 2 before going back to their streak-opening gambit. Presumably, the intent is to take away Murray’s airspace at midrange, where he loves to operate. However, he shot 39.3 percent on 244 3-pointers during the regular season and has canned 37.5 percent of his 64 long balls off the rebound in these playoffs. In this series, he is 5-for-11 on 3-pointers. He is quite comfortable stopping and popping from deep.
When Los Angeles has chosen to fight for the top, Murray is content to explore his midrange haven, shooting 8-of-12 (66.7 percent) on two-pointers in this series and 43-of-83 (51.8 percent) in the playoffs. . The chemistry he has with Jokic on the ball screens amplifies the space he finds. James in drop coverage when the small-ball 5 with Davis resting was untenable Thursday night. But the main alternatives (trading a small to Jokic or trapping him for a 4v3) are even less acceptable. If Jokic and Davis’ seasons aren’t going to align, the Lakers must find a remedy for the non-Davis minutes, though that’s been a quandary throughout the playoffs.
But right now, there may not be a bigger dilemma for Los Angeles than figuring out how to deal with Murray. The guy is in a shooting rhythm, which helped salvage the offense Thursday.
While Murray and Jokic have fostered an intrinsic and unspoken chemistry on pick-and-rolls, the heart of their connection lies in dribbling trades. While the Lakers blocked much of the Golden State Warriors’ heavy dribble-passing attack in the last round, they can no longer adhere to the same defensive principles with Jokic unleashing the action. Against Golden State, they blocked shooters and ball handlers to deny the trade and swamped whichever big man, Draymond Green or Kevon Looney, was facilitating them because neither is a credible shooting or scoring threat.
Jokic, however, is, and has developed an innate synergy with Murray on cuts when defenses deny those trades. Davis has to pressure Jokic and the guards have to block and follow in place. As a qualifying beneficiary, Murray is exploiting the problems Jokic poses for Los Angeles.
Denver is mixing some smooth trades and traditional Chicago action, but their staple is Rip DHO* involving Murray, Jokic and Gordon. The Lakers are hesitant to change the opening screen because it will leave Gordon with a deep seal against a mismatch and Jokic can seamlessly feed that inning pass for buckets.
(* — This may not be the official name, but the “Rip” part is derived from the Rip/back screen Murray sets up before moving to the dribble handoff, hence Rip DHO.)
Regardless of the situation you put them in, they are also defending you very poorly and not communicating effectively. This is a long-standing component of Denver’s Jokic-centric offense. It had to be a predominant part of the pre-series movie. The Lakers can’t mess up coverage like they have for two games, they shouldn’t even have handled it as badly as they have so far. Murray is taking advantage of it, as he has throughout his career playing under Jokic.
Jokic has never shared a flat with another current All-Star since he entered the NBA, at least by the literal definition. But each of the last two times Murray has suited up in the playoffs, he’s performed like one. In his last 32 postseason games, he’s averaging 26.8 points (61.2 percent true shooting), 6.5 assists, 5.1 rebounds and 1.2 steals per night. If he puts up these numbers through the first 32 games of a regular season, Murray would be in for an All-Star nomination.
Despite some defensive hiccups (particularly in Game 1), he rose to start these Western Conference Finals, even by his own lofty standards. After a couple of dynamite 30 balls, Murray has the Nuggets within two wins of the franchise’s top seed in the Finals. He is further solidifying himself as a bona fide co-star alongside the biggest superstar in the league in Jokic. It was true in the Bubble. It was true in 2020-21. It was true the last three months of this season. And it’s absolutely true right now.