‘It was winning time:’ LeBron, Lakers enter dangerous territory by taking 3-1 West finals lead


LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — LeBron James called Denver Nuggets young star Jamal Murray one of the hottest players in the bubble. If the Los Angeles Lakers were to prevent the series from breaking even at 2-2, the guard needed to be stopped.

Murray penetrated and spun around Rajon Rondo for a contested, difficult, left-handed pull-up from 10 feet that found the bottom of the net, trimming the deficit to three with 6:27 left in the fourth quarter Thursday night. That gave him 30 points.

James had seen enough. He demanded the assignment of checking the youngster from that point on. The results: two free throws for Murray the rest of the way. With the Nuggets’ hottest player cooled off, Denver didn’t have enough firepower as the Lakers took a commanding 3-1 lead in the Western Conference finals with a 114-108 victory.

“I knew it was winning time, and Jamal had it going,” James, who finished with 26 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, said of his decision to guard Murray. “The kid is special. He has an array of shots. Triple threat from the three, mid-range and also in the paint. For me, it’s just trusting my defensive keys. Trusting my study of film. Trusting personnel. And living with the results. I told my teammates that I had him, and everyone else can kind of stay at bay and stay home. I was able to get a couple stops and we were able to rebound the basketball, which is the most important thing.”

Murray said he’s used to this type of attention from the opposing team’s best players. 

“I mean, they switched [Anthony Davis] on me … too,” he said. “Obviously, with LeBron, I do the same stuff I do when I see [Alex] Caruso, when I see Rondo and [Kentavious Caldwell-Pope], and Kawhi [Leonard], Paul George and [Pat Beverley]. I mean, I do the same thing. Appreciate the respect, but we’ve got to win the game.”

Lakers coach Frank Vogel wanted a spark from the onset and made the move to start Dwight Howard at center in place of JaVale McGee. Previously in the series, Howard would be brought in to start the second quarter, and his physical play and energy affected Nuggets star Nikola Jokic at times. 

Jokic never got it going offensively in Game 4, finishing with 16 points, seven rebounds, four assists and five personal fouls in 35 minutes.

“[Dwight] did his job,” Jokic said. “He had a really good first quarter. He kind of brought energy for them.”

Davis was locked in early on, establishing his dominance and scoring the Lakers’ first 10 points. The star forward had a game-high 34 points on 10-of-15 shooting, pulled down five boards and registered three steals in 40 minutes.

“I just came out, in my mind, to be ultra-aggressive, knowing that in our eyes, we don’t want to lose two on the road, and it was a must-win game for us,” Davis said.

Nuggets coach Mike Malone was frustrated with his team’s inability to get key defensive stops and rebounds in the second half. The Lakers won the rebounding battle 41-33 and snatched 12 offensive rebounds, double the amount of the Nuggets. 

Malone vocalized his annoyance after the game. 

“There were just a lot of breakdowns,” he said. “We had a stretch where LeBron misses a free throw, gets the offensive rebound, put-back. Caldwell-Pope drives the baseline, gets there, dunk. Caldwell-Pope comes to the basket, we don’t tag from the weakside, layup. Too many breakdowns. 

“This is the Western Conference finals, Game 4. If you can’t help us on the defensive end, maybe you shouldn’t be on the floor. We have to be able to lock in, finish with a rebound. We had too many empty possessions tonight.”

Thursday’s postgame was the first time James was made available to the media since a Kentucky grand jury on Wednesday decided against bringing charges against three Louisville police officers for the killing of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor.

Taylor, a Black woman, was killed inside her home when police were trying to execute a warrant to locate a man during a narcotics investigation. As soon as the grand jury decision was announced, protests erupted in the city and across the country. There were questions of whether the players would once again walk out and refuse to participate in the conference finals.

“We didn’t talk about that,” James said. “One thing, we wanted to be there for our brother, [Rondo]. As much as it’s devastating to us, you can only imagine it happening in your backyard. ’Do being from Louisville, we knew how tough it had to be on his family and the locals there. No, we didn’t discuss [walking out] one bit. But can’t say that we were surprised at the verdict. None of us are surprised at it. That’s what’s more devastating, that none of us were surprised at what the outcome was.”

The Nuggets have been down this road before in the bubble. They are the only team in NBA history to have come back from two 3-1 series deficits to advance in the same postseason. The last time the Lakers played in the NBA Finals was in 2010. Something’s got to give, and now L.A. is one win away from the title round, with Game 5 on Saturday.

“You can never be comfortable around this team,” Davis said. “They have been in this situation twice. We’ve been in this situation twice. But both teams are familiar with these situations, but this team is not going to go away. You know, like I said last game, we’ve got to put them away. They are going to continue to fight, no matter what the score is, no matter what the situation is, we just have to make sure we counter everything they do.”

Said Vogel: “We have great respect for this team and definitely know that we have a lot of work to do to finish this series.”