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. Game 1’s offensive showcase made way for Game 2’s defensive-minded, cold-shooting affair. LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Nikola Jokic combined for 100 points on 35-for-56 shooting in Game 1. Thursday night, they totaled just 63 points on 22-for-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 shredding the Lakers’ defense for a pair of 30-point escapades. The 25-year-old has once again shown his knack for leveling up in the playoffs, averaging 34 points (68.4 percent true shooting), 7.5 rebounds, five assists, and 3.5 steals against the Lakers.
Through 2.5 quarters of Game 2, an encore from his 31-point Game 1 seemed nearly implausible for Murray. After opening the night 2-for-3 with six points, he misfired on 11 of his next 12 attempts and was laboring through a 3-for-15 showing filled with short and off-center misses. He very clearly looked like a person trying to play a professional sport with an ear infection. But then, he turned ablaze. He buried eight of his final nine shots, including seven straight. He splashed home four triples amid that flurry. His 3-for-15 slog slammed on the brakes and U-turned into an 11-for-24, 37-point supernova display.
After Los Angeles assigned Davis to Aaron Gordon so he could roam on Jokic as a helper midway through the third quarter, the Nuggets’ offense lost some luster, though it already struggled to manufacture all night. Jokic, who scored 21 of his 23 points before the nine-minute mark of the third, missed a slew of reliable shots and was 1-for-8 down the stretch. Davis’ patrolling and Gordon’s discomfort against that approach muddied the waters for everyone involved.
Murray stepped up with 23 fourth-quarter points. The sixth-year guard is presenting substantial issues for Los Angeles’ defense, primarily through two means: pick-and-roll and handoffs. When the Lakers employ drop coverage against him, he’s torching them. Whether it’s Davis or James, Murray is finding the requisite space to get to his jumper and hurl flames. Davis playing at the level or full-on switching has worked better.
The Lakers are toggling between going under and over on Murray’s screens. They started out with the former in Game 1, shifted to the latter late, and opened that way in Game 2 before reverting back to their opening gambit for spurts. Presumably, the intention is to take away Murray’s airspace in the midrange, where he loves to operate. Yet he shot 39.3 percent on 244 pull-up triples during the regular season and has canned 37.5 percent of his 64 off-the-bounce long balls these playoffs. In this series, he’s 5-for-11 on pull-up threes. He’s quite comfortable stopping and popping from deep.
When Los Angeles has elected to fight over the top, Murray is content to probe into his midrange haven, shooting 8-for-12 (66.7 percent) on two-point pull-ups this series and 43-for-83 (51.8 percent) in the playoffs. The chemistry he possesses with Jokic in ball-screens amplifies the space he finds. James in drop coverage as the small-ball 5 with Davis resting was untenable on Thursday night. But the main alternatives — switching a small onto Jokic or trapping to give him a 4-on-3 — are even less palatable. If Jokic and Davis’ stints aren’t going to align, the Lakers must find a remedy for the non-Davis minutes, though that’s been a dilemma all playoffs.
But right now, there may not be a bigger dilemma for Los Angeles than figuring out how to deal with Murray. The dude’s in a shot-making groove, which helped rescue the offense Thursday.
While Murray and Jokic have fostered unspoken, intrinsic chemistry in pick-and-rolls, the heart of their connection resides in dribble handoffs. Whereas the Lakers stymied much of the Golden State Warriors’ dribble handoff-heavy attack last round, they can’t adhere to the same defensive principles anymore with Jokic triggering the action. Against Golden State, they top-locked shooters and ball-handlers to deny the handoff and sagged off whichever big man, Draymond Green or Kevon Looney, was facilitating them because neither is a credible shooting or scoring threat.
Jokic, however, is, and he’s developed innate synergy with Murray on cuts when defenses deny those handoffs. Davis has to press up against Jokic and the guards are left to lock-and-trail instead. As a qualified beneficiary, Murray is exploiting the problems Jokic poses for Los Angeles.
Denver is mixing in some free-flowing handoffs and the traditional Chicago action, but its staple is Rip DHO* involving Murray, Jokic, and Gordon. The Lakers are hesitant to switch the initial screen because it’ll leave Gordon with a deep seal against a mismatch and Jokic can seamlessly feed that entry pass for buckets.
(* — This may not be the official name, but the “Rip” part stems from the Rip/back screen Murray sets before transitioning into the dribble handoff, hence Rip DHO.)
Regardless of the predicament it puts them in, they’re also just defending it really poorly and failing to communicate effectively. This is a longtime component of Denver’s Jokic-centric offense. It had to be a prevalent part of the pre-series film. The Lakers cannot botch the coverage on it like they have through two games, nor should they have even mishandled it as much as they have thus far. Murray is taking advantage, as he’s done throughout his career playing off of Jokic.
Jokic has never shared the floor alongside another current All-Star since entering the NBA, at least by the literal definition. But each of the last two times Murray’s suited up in the playoffs, he’s performed like one. Over his past 32 postseason games, he’s averaging 26.8 points (61.2 percent true shooting), 6.5 assists, 5.1 rebounds, and 1.2 steals a night. If he put up these numbers through the first 32 games of a regular season, Murray would walk into an All-Star nod.
Despite some hiccups defensively (particularly in Game 1), he’s elevated himself to begin these Western Conference Finals, even by his own lofty standards. Following a pair of dynamite 30-balls, Murray has the Nuggets two victories away from the franchise’s first Finals berth. He’s further solidifying himself as a bona fide co-star next to the league’s foremost superstar in Jokic. It was true in the Bubble. It was true in 2020-21. It was true the final three months of this season. And it’s absolutely true right now.