After Nikola Jokic’s monster game in the opener, his pick-and-roll partner Jamal Murray took the spotlight in the Western Conference finals Thursday night.
Murray, from Kitchener, Ont., scored 23 of his 37 points in the fourth quarter, propelling the Denver Nuggets to a 108-103 come-from-behind win over the Los Angeles Lakers for a 2-0 lead in the series.
“He was special,” Jokic said. “He won us the game basically.”
Murray missed 12 of his 17 shots through three quarters but found his touch in the fourth, going 6 for 7, including four 3-pointers, and fuelling a 15-1 run that gave Denver a 96-84 lead.
“He made shots at the end of the clock,” LeBron James lamented. “We guard for 24 seconds and he made two big-time shots, one over (Anthony Davis) and one over me. He had his 3-point shot going in the fourth. It’s no surprise to me, he’s done it before. Sometimes it’s a never-miss league.”
In all, Denver sank seven 3s in the fourth quarter after hitting seven all night.
“It would have been a lot easier if I had made them in the first half,” said Murray, who is still playing through an earache he hasn’t been able to shake since Round 2.
Jokic added 23 points, 17 rebounds and a dozen assists a day after ESPN sideline reporter Lisa Salters handed the Nuggets the no-respect card by acknowledging that she’d never seen the two-time MVP play before Game 1, when he had 34 points, 21 boards and 14 assists.
“For those that don’t know him, he’s got 13 playoff triple-doubles now,” Malone sneered after Game 2. “It’s just incredible what he continues to do on a nightly basis on the biggest stage in the world.”
As for Jokic, he brushed off the slights on him and his teammates, saying, “It’s nothing new for us.”
Malone was plenty miffed by the Lakers getting all the pub.
“You win Game 1 and all everybody talked about was the Lakers,” Malone said. “Let’s be honest, the national narrative was, `Hey, the Lakers are fine. They’re down 1-0, but they figured something out.’ No one talked about how Nikola just had an historic performance. He’s got 13 (playoff) triple-doubles now, third all-time. What he’s doing is just incredible.
“But their narrative wasn’t about the Nuggets. The narrative wasn’t about Nikola. The narrative was about the Lakers and their adjustments. So you know, you put that in your pipe and you smoke it, you come back and you know what, we’re gonna go up 2-0.”
The Nuggets have never been this close to reaching the NBA Finals in their history. Game 3 is Saturday night at Crypto.com Arena, where James and the Lakers are 8-0 in the playoffs.
Malone said he reminded Murray heading into the fourth quarter not to fret over his shooting woes but to focus on contributing in other ways. He heeded that advice, grabbing three big boards on defence and stealing the ball twice besides hitting 4-of-5 from deep and 7-of-8 from the stripe.
“Three-point line is what killed us in the fourth,” James said.
Malone knew that when Murray finally found the net, many more buckets would follow.
“We all know ... he just has to see one go in,” Malone said, and when that happened, “he kind of looked up to the heavens and that’s all he needs. And after that he’s shooting into a hula hoop.”
Just like in Game 1, the Lakers didn’t go down easily. They pulled to three points on Austin Reaves’ jumper before Murray sank two free throws with 12 seconds left and Bruce Brown stole the ball from James, then dribbled out the final 8 seconds.
The Nuggets improved to 41-8 at home, best in the NBA, including 8-0 in the playoffs.
James and Reaves both scored 22 for Los Angeles. Davis scored 18 after pouring in 40 in the opener and Rui Hachimura scored 21 points off the bench.
For much of the night, it appeared as though the Lakers would wrest home-court advantage from the Nuggets, who are the top seed for the first time in their history. The Lakers won the series openers at Memphis and Golden State to reach the conference championship.
The outstanding defence Hachimura played on Jokic in the fourth quarter of the Lakers’ loss in Game 1 led many to believe coach Darvin Ham would start Hachimura to try to stymie the Nuggets’ star centre from the start. But instead he came off the bench again, scoring 17 first-half points but just four thereafter.
“Proud of our guys,” Ham said. “They bounced back. We addressed a lot of the things that we said we were going to try to do better. Still got to be better in transition D. But overall the energy was there, the effort was there, the urgency was there, we just caught a bad stretch.”
And a suddenly red-hot Jamal Murray.
Lakers: Los Angeles made 23 of 26 free throws. ... Davis and James were a combined 13 of 36 from the floor.
Nuggets: After watching the Lakers start the second quarter on a 9-0 run with Jokic and Murray on the bench, Malone kept Jokic in to start the fourth quarter. “Nikola’s like Secretariat, man,” Malone said. “That guy can run for days.”