In an NBA playoff series, Game 2 is usually the forgotten game. A series usually needs a location change before bold predictions are made. After dominating the Los Angeles Lakers for most of Game 1, the Denver Nuggets’ fourth-quarter performance left much to be desired in a victory that they almost let slip away. A Game 7-like intensity permeated throughout Game 2, and it was Jamal Murray’s excellence that allowed the Nuggets to escape with a 2-0 series lead.
The Lakers’ go-to players did not provide much on offense throughout the game. Anthony Davis shot 26.7 percent from the field, and LeBron James came up short on several shots near the rim. However, the success that the Lakers had against Nikola Jokić in the fourth quarter of Game 1, they brought it all night on Thursday.
I haven’t seen Jokić look that hesitant on a basketball court since the Nuggets’ bubble Western Conference Finals loss to the Lakers three years ago, and these last five quarters have been much worse. In the fourth quarter of Game 1, Jokić went 0-2 from the field with two turnovers. The two-time NBA MVP shot 42.9 percent from the field in Game 2, and went 3-for-11 from the field in the second half. The Lakers threw the kitchen sink at Jokić and were successful.
Jamal Murray goes off in the 4th quarter
However, the fourth quarter got out of hand for the Lakers quickly. The Nuggets changed their fourth-quarter rotation by opening with Jokić and Murray on the floor. Murray played the entire second half after struggling from the field for three quarters. His early Game 1 vibes back when the Nuggets set a playoff-franchise record for total points through three quarters, he got those back in the fourth quarter of Game 2 and hung 23 points on the Lakers during that period.
With Jokić handcuffed, the Nuggets could not have won this game without Murray’s offense. A player who has some series-tipping postseason performances under his belt. During the 2020 NBA Playoffs bubble, the pick and roll between him and Jokić was predictable but — after falling 3-1 in the second round — it also put out Kawhi Leonard and Paul George’s Los Angeles Clippers in their first season together.
The Nuggets were solid the following season, but Murray suffered a torn ACL in his right knee two and a half weeks before the end of the regular season. That injury occurred on April 12, 2021. He didn’t play again until the 2022-23 season, but the Nuggets still worked him back into his role gradually. While being load managed throughout the regular season, he still had to miss six consecutive games in February due to inflammation in his left knee.
During the 2022-23 regular season, Murray’s statistics took a noticeable drop from his 2020-21 peak, but in his last four playoff games, he has played like one of the best guards in the NBA. Murray shot better than 50 percent from the field in each of the final two games of the Nuggets’ second-round series against the Phoenix Suns, and in Game 1 against the Lakers. He managed only a 45.8 field-goal percentage in Game 2, but the reason it was that high was due to his 85.7 percent from the field in the fourth quarter.
Combine that with late-game effort on defense that ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy noticed — while James and Anthony Davis struggled all night from the field — and the Nuggets went from trailing for most of the second half to taking the lead for good at the 9:21 mark of the fourth quarter.
Win or lose, this series is likely going to serve as Jokić’s introduction to America as one of the best professional athletes employed in this country. But without Murray’s excellence, the Nuggets are, at minimum, in a precarious 1-1 position heading to Los Angeles. Instead, Murray has his team in the catbird seat even with the 2021 and 2022 NBA MVP struggling.