The Los Angeles Lakers lead the Denver Nuggets 3-1 in the Western Conference Finals. I had to write it down to make it feel more real. For some reason, game 4 felt like it was an uphill battle for the Lakers from the tip. The reality of it is that the Lakers led for 95% of the time, but oddly enough, it didn’t feel like this was their game to win until about a minute or so left in the game. Despite leading since early in the first quarter, the Denver Nuggets stayed close.
The Nuggets, as I have written before, are a very good team. They play well together and are much more about the whole than any individual part. They are just a group of very good basketball players that are very confident in their abilities. That group, on paper, shouldn’t be in a game against the Lakers, but the games are played on the court, not on paper and its on the court that Denver excels. Nikola Jokic had a pedestrian game for him with 16 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists. If this was a normal game that line by Jokic would be enough to ensure a Lakers victory, but this was not a normal game. Jamal Murray filled in for Jokic scoring 32 points and 8 assists.
More impressive than the 32 points was the way Murray got some of them. He was taking shots that should not be taken, but he was making them!!! His up and under layup around LeBron James was one of the most acrobatic shots in NBA playoff history. Ya, he was that good. But, without a more typical game from their All-Star center, the Nuggets were just good enough to stay close, but never good enough to seal the deal. The Lakers took the Nuggets best shot and responded with several of their own.
While the Nuggets are a very good team, the Lakers have really only been together this season. The Nuggets lead in chemistry and familiarity based on length of time together, but the Lakers lead in talent. Tonight, talent beat familiarity, but it was close. LeBron James had 26 points, 9 rebound and 8 assists in what was, despite those great numbers, a somewhat quite night for him. Anthony Davis once again struggled to get rebounds finishing with only 5 over 40 minutes. His 34 points helped make up for it though. However, even though AD’s rebounds total wasn’t great, he got them when he needed to. In fact, the game was won thanks to timely offensive rebounds by the Lakers.
Lakers up 107-102 – 2:12 left
Denver just missed a three point shot which would have made it a two point game. The Lakers got the rebound and milked the clock with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope taking a three with 4 seconds left on the shot clock. He missed. Now, if the Nuggets get this rebound and score on the other end its nervous time. Instead, Anthony Davis pulled down the offensive rebound allowing the Lakers to kill more time. Net result, six seconds killed after a quick foul on LeBron James and two points after he hit his free throws.
Lakers up 109-102 – 2:02 left
The Nuggets, playing against tough Lakers defense, settle for a makeable Jokic hook shot. The type of shot Jokic makes 9 out of 10 times. Tonight, he missed. The Lakers secure the rebound but, holding on to a 7 point lead, turn the ball over after an offensive foul on Markieff Morris, who seconds later fouls out. Denver makes their two free throws.
Lakers up 109-104 – 1:29 left
Once again, the Lakers milk the clock and take a shot late in the shot clock. LeBron missed the fadeaway, but Caldwell-Pope rebounds! The ball gets back to LeBron who is fouled and, once again, makes both free throws. Net result, three seconds killed and two points.
Lakers up 111-104 – 59 seconds left
Denver, sensing the game slipping away, initiate their offense quickly leading to an Alex Caruso foul on Jamal Murray. Murray makes both free throws.
Lakers up 111- 106 – 50.3 seconds left
Now, its crunch time. The Lakers have been able to kill 8 seconds and added four points thanks to two offensive rebounds. Keep in mind, if those two offensive rebounds didn’t happen and the Nuggets made two point shots both times, everything else staying the same, the score would be 107-110 Nuggets! Those offensive rebounds were huge, but they weren’t enough, The Nuggets were still within striking distance. Once again, the Lakers milk the clock and take a shot with about 5 seconds left on the shot clock. The KCP 3pt shot misses, but Rajon Rondo was there for the biggest and most impactful offensive rebound of the night for the Lakers.
Rondo is quickly fouled, so the rebound didn’t give the Lakers any extra time off the clock, but it did give them more free throws. Rondo made one of two giving the Lakers a six point, two possession, lead with 31.9 seconds left. More importantly, that Rondo rebound seemed to demoralize the Nuggets. It was the first time the game seemed out of reach for them.
Three offensive rebounds in three key possessions all with under 2 minutes left in the game. That is what Championship teams do. Those rebounds allowed the Lakers to kill additional time and netted them five extra points. in a game they won by six! Teams with Championship asperations win the ugly games. They overcome the other teams runs. They play under composure no matter what the circumstance. They come up big when the big moments arrive.
The Lakers showed any and all doubters tonight that they are a team with Championship asperations.