EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — The Los Angeles Lakers tried to make history. The Denver Nuggets appeared determined not to let that happen.
The Nuggets walked away with a 113-111 win over the Lakers in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals on Monday, ensuring a four-game sweep and their first appearance in the NBA Finals in franchise history. Denver will face either the Boston Celtics or the Miami Heat, which have a 3-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference Finals with Game 4 taking place on Tuesday.
Below are five major takeaways from the Nuggets’ big win.
Denver Nuggets get two final critical stops
With Denver holding a 113-111 lead with 4.0 seconds left, Lakers forward LeBron James drove inside both to make a shot and draw a foul. Neither happened.
Instead, Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon and Nuggets guard Jamal Murray double-teamed him before Gordon blocked the shot. With the Lakers trailing, 113-111 with 31.3 seconds left and 3.6 seconds remaining on the shot clock, James hoisted a fadeaway jumper that hit the side of the backboard to send the Lakers home for good.
Nuggets climbed back in third quarter
Shortly after falling to the floor, Denver guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope threw out his right arm. He had just nailed a fall-away jumper before drawing a foul on Anthony Davis. Not only did that 3-point play give the Nuggets an 83-81 lead with 4:39 left in the third quarter. It captured the Nuggets’ ability to outscore the Lakers, 23-8 to open the second half.
Plenty of factors explained the Nuggets’ comeback. Jokic and Murray broke out their two-man game to combine for 15 points. The Lakers missed their first seven shots while committing two turnovers. And the Lakers looked tired, both with executing their half-court sets and running back on transition defense.
LeBron James played his best game of the series against Denver
At first, James showed various signs that he would have a dominant game. Later, James then looked tired after playing the entire first half.
After initially dominating with energy and laboring with fatigue, James still finished with 40 points while shooting 15-for-25 from the field and 4-for-7 from 3-point range, along with ten rebounds and nine assists. That marks a substantial improvement from what he displayed in Games 1 through 3. Then, he averaged 23.7 points and shot a combined 3-for-18 from deep (15.8%), including missing his ten makes.
James even flirted with surpassing his postseason career-high 51 points in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ loss to the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. In that game, James shot 19-for-32 overall, 3-for-7 from 3-point range, and 10-for-11 from the free-throw line while posting eight assists and eight rebounds.
Despite working with the same tight turnaround with games taking place every other night, James played with an extra spring in his step. Even though he improved his outside shooting, the 38-year-old attacked the basket instead of settling as he did in the first three games. That showed that James felt comfortable absorbing the contact. That approach also helped him build rhythm toward varying his shot selection from deep.
On the first play, James drove to the basket, absorbed Michael Porter Jr. accidentally swiping him in the head, and made two free throws without any issues. Later from behind the arc, James threw a lob to Rui Hachimura, only for the ball to drop into the basket. James stayed aggressive in attacking the rack, yet his legs looked lively when pulling up from deep.
As the game progressed, though, James looked worn down. In the second half, the 20-year-pro went through significant stretches without driving to the basket, shooting, or even touching the ball. He looked exhausted after drawing consecutive charges on Jokic. And he tugged on his right knee in the final five minutes. Regardless, James poured it all out in a potential elimination game.
The Nuggets spread the wealth
Denver won the game in most ways they have all season. They relied on both their stars and role players. Jokic finished with 30 points, 14 rebounds, and 13 assists for his 15th career post-season triple-double.
Murray added 25 points on 10-for-18 shooting and five assists despite missing all four of his 3-point attempts. Gordon (22 points), Michael Porter Jr (15), and Caldwell-Pope (13) also cracked double figures.
Lakers’ lineup change worked
The Lakers stormed onto the court with a much different identity. Not only did they play with more urgency given the stakes. They also executed better because of the personnel.
Lakers coach Darvin Ham started forward Rui Hachimura and guard Dennis Schroder with James, Anthony Davis, and Austin Reaves after starting Jarred Vanderbilt and D’Angelo Russell in the previous two games.
Hachimura finished with 10 points, albeit on 3-for-12 shooting and seven rebounds. Schroder added 13 points on 6-for-13 shooting and five assists. It did not take long for them to help the team. Both players took turns defending Murray.
Hachimura dunked on his first play. Schroder then forced a turnover on Murray, which resulted in a Reaves fast-break layup. The Lakers also benefitted from playing seldom-used forward Tristan Thompson, who brought flashbacks of his time with LeBron in Cleveland with his physicality.
Ham previously downplayed the importance of making a lineup switch, perhaps to inspire confidence. But there was no way around it. The move needed to happen.
In the first three games, Russell averaged 7.0 points while shooting only 29.6% from the field and 14.3% from 3-point range. Vanderbilt offered little on offense (2 points a game) while not having the same defensive impact as he did in the Lakers’ previous playoff series against Memphis and Golden State.
Russell still offered some value when he hit a jumper that tied the game at 94 with 10:05 left in the fourth quarter. On the following possession, though, Russell made a bad pass that went out-of-bounds before fouling Nuggets guard Bruce Brown, showing the inconsistency he’s faced throughout his career. It all contributed to the Lakers’ eventual demise.