After a flowing, offense-forward Game 1, the first three quarters of Game 2 were a grinder’s game: defensive, physical, more scoring in the paint (and missed 3s), and plenty of whistles.
Then Jamal Murray happened.
He took over in the fourth quarter, the Nuggets as a team found their offensive flow for about seven minutes — including being +6 in the non-Jokić minutes — and Denver took the lead then hung on for the 108-103 Game 2 win. The Nuggets held serve at home and lead the series 2-0 heading back to Los Angeles for Game 3 on Saturday.
Here are three takeaways from Game 2.
1) Nuggets are not just Nikola Jokić show — meet Jamal Murray
The negative narrative some pushed around Nikola Jokic’s MVP candidacy — “Why are we rewarding a guy who hasn’t won big in the playoffs with three straight MVPs?” — willfully ignored a key point.
For the past two years, the Nuggets were without Jamal Murray in the playoffs after he suffered a torn ACL just before the 2021 postseason (then missed all of the 2021-22 campaign).
Game 2 was a reminder of what he means to this team, giving them a second elite scoring threat who can take over a game.
Murray was not that guy for three quarters Thursday night. He had 14 points on 5-of-17 shooting through three and seemed off his game. The Lakers were keeping Jokić in relative check (as much as anyone does) and Los Angeles had ground the game down to their style and had the lead entering the final 12 minutes.
Then Murray took over in the fourth with 23 points, hitting 4-of-5 from 3 in the quarter.
Jamal Murray goes OFF in the 4th quarter to help Denver secure a 2-0 lead in the WCF!
37 PTS (23 PTS in the 4Q)
DEN/LAL Game 2: Sat, 8:30 PM ET | ABC pic.twitter.com/wZ9k5YaUCa
— NBA (@NBA) May 19, 2023
It’s worth noting the rotation adjustment Michael Malone made here. Traditionally Jokić rests at the start of the second and fourth quarters, but with the Nuggets down entering the fourth, he left his former MVP on the court for the first three minutes of the quarter. Jokić’s gravity draws defenders, which opened up room for Murray to get rolling.
It wasn’t just Murray, the Nuggets as a team found their offensive flow and went on a 20-5 run to open the fourth. They broke out of the grind of the game and ultimately were able to hold on against a Lakers charge at the end. But the Nuggets never get that chance without the massive night from Murray.
It felt like an off night for Nikola Jokić and he still finished with a 23-point, 17-rebound, 12-assist triple-double (his fourth straight playoff game with a 20+ point triple-double).
Nikola Jokic posts ANOTHER triple-double in the @nuggets Game 2 win!
23 PTS | 17 REB | 12 AST | 3 STL
WCF Game 3: Saturday, 10:30pm/et on ABC pic.twitter.com/oSqg2HnKtp
— NBA (@NBA) May 19, 2023
Michael Porter Jr. finished with 16 and Bruce Brown had a dozen off the bench.
2) Lakers need a little more, starting with LeBron, Davis
We can talk about the adjustments Darvin Ham and the Lakers made in Game 2, some of which worked well. They returned to their traditional starting lineup of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Austin Reaves, D'Angelo Russell and Jared Vanderbilt — and that group did a respectable defensive job (particularly on the glass). For three quarters the Lakers ground the pace down to what works for them.
Rui Hachimura had a good game with 21 off the bench. Reaves had another impressive game with five 3-pointers and a team-high 22 points.
None of that matters if LeBron James and Anthony Davis are not two of the three best players on the court in each game.
They were not on Thursday.
Davis had a solid defensive game but shot 4-of-15. LeBron played well — scoring 22, running the offense much of the night and defending Jokić at times — but was 0-of-6 from 3, a shot he settled for three times in the fourth quarter. The Lakers looked tired and worn down at the end of Game 2, more so than the Nuggets did.
The Nuggets defended their home, now the Lakers must win both games at home, Saturday and Monday to have a real chance in this series. That has to start with LeBron and Davis having their best games of the series and making the Nuggets look tired.
Another change coach Darvin Ham has to consider is moving away from Russell. He is now -41 in 59 minutes through two games, and the Nuggets started many of their actions in Game 2 by bringing him into the play. If Russell isn’t lighting it up on offense (10 points on 3-of-8 shooting), he will be hard to keep on the floor because he is their weakest defender, and Ham may need to lean into Dennis Schroder or Hachimura for those minutes.
3) Welcome to the national discourse about the national discourse
The Denver Nuggets play with a huge chip on their shoulder, the “we don’t get enough respect” chip.
After Game 1 — where the Nuggets built a huge lead then almost let it slip away, just hanging on for the win — the Nuggets felt the “national narrative” was too focused on the Lakers’ comeback and not who won. Coach Michael Malone — who plays that disrespect card more than anyone to motivate his team — went on a mini rant after Game 2 about that lack of respect.
“You win Game 1 of the playoffs, and all everybody talked about was the Lakers. Let’s be honest, that was a national narrative. The Lakers were fine. They’re down 1-0 but they figured something out,” Malone said. “No one talked about that Nikola had a historic performance. He’s got 13 [playoff] triple-doubles now. Third all-time. What he’s doing is just incredible
“But the narrative wasn’t about the Nuggets. The narrative wasn’t about Nikola. The narrative is about the Lakers and their adjustments. So you put that in your pipe, you smoke it, you come back and you know what, we’re going to go up 2-0.”
Good on Malone, you don’t hear “put that in your pipe and smoke it” much anymore. Thanks for bringing back one of my Dad’s classic lines.
Whatever you think of Malone’s narrative theory, what matters is the rest of the Nuggets are buying in.
“Even when we win, they talk about the other team,” Murray said.
Well, now the talk will be about what we should be talking about, not how well the Nuggets have played the past two games and throughout the postseason.
Coaches and players love a good straw man argument to fire them up, and Malone has found one that works. The classic “nobody outside this locker room respects us” chestnut. Forget that they were the No.1 seed and pundits with as big a name as Charles Barkley picked them to win it all. If the Nuggets believe they are being disrespected, then that’s all that matters.
In reality, they have to win two more games to get the respect they deserve.