The Los Angeles Lakers took a commanding 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals on Thursday evening. LeBron James led the way with 26 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, with Anthony Davis adding an efficient 34 points in what became a 114-108 victory over the Denver Nuggets.
The Brow (34 PTS) had a BIG Game 4 to give the Lakers a 3-1 series lead. 😤 pic.twitter.com/QFInYv8nql
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) September 25, 2020
Though the Lakers are in a favorable position, there is much to discuss with what has been an intriguing series. To that end, here are three takeaways from Game 4.
1. The first quarter was pivotal for the Lakers
Game 4 featured notable runs on both sides, with the Nuggets refusing to fade even as the Lakers throughout the night. Los Angeles did plenty in the latter stages of the contest to secure the victory but, in truth, it was the first quarter that might have sealed Denver’s fate.
Out of the gate, Anthony Davis had it going, scoring the first 10 points of the night for Los Angeles without missing a shot.
Anthony Davis is cooking early. pic.twitter.com/0PNJ13dEpJ
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) September 25, 2020
Anthony Davis scoring buckets with one eye open. Next level.
— Dime (@DimeUPROXX) September 25, 2020
Davis made his first seven shots overall, including six in the first quarter alone, and he did a lot of damage with 14 points in the period. Elsewhere, the Lakers made massive gains in the possession battle, particularly on the offensive glass. Defensive rebounding was a problem for Denver throughout the night, but it was pointed in the first quarter, with the Lakers grabbing five offensive rebounds and generating a whopping 12 second-chance points.
Dwight Howard was huge for Los Angeles in that regard, grabbing four offensive rebounds on his own, and the veteran center scored eight points and snatched eight overall rebounds in the opening quarter. The choice to insert Howard into the starting lineup worked through that lens, and the Lakers issued only one turnover (to three for the Nuggets) in the quarter.
Dwight not wasting any time in his first start of the playoffs ⚡️
(📺: TNT) pic.twitter.com/8PJFCMiTnA
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) September 25, 2020
All told, the Lakers were able to take six more shots (and two more free throws) than the Nuggets in the first quarter, and that was enormous. In fact, Denver shot the ball beautifully, converting 65 percent of their attempts in the quarter, but it simply wasn’t enough because of the way the Lakers dominated in other areas.
2. Jamal Murray continues to be out of his mind
While it ultimately came in a losing effort, Murray was masterful. Though the Lakers owned the first quarter and led by as many as 10 points, Murray started hot in his own right, scoring 12 points on 6-of-7 shooting.
Jamal Murray off to a hot start. Denver has used Harris or a guard as a screener to put Lakers in a different spot defensively. Watch how Harris slips so no coverage or switch. Murray able to attack and get to his stepback. pic.twitter.com/yxAzoK710i
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) September 25, 2020
Los Angeles maintained their lead throughout the second quarter, but the Nuggets made another push late in the half, headlined by one of the more amazing finishes you’ll ever see.
The shotmaking exhibition continued for Murray, with another circus display after halftime that wasn’t fully digestible without a view from multiple angles.
This defied several laws of physicspic.twitter.com/CMdIRDjJ9W
— David Gardner (@byDavidGardner) September 25, 2020
Murray entered the night averaging 26.6 points and 6.5 assists per game in the playoffs, up notably from his pre-bubble averages. That comes with a ludicrous 47.7 percent clip from three-point range, which is unsustainable for any human. Murray finally cooled from beyond the arc on this night, going 0-of-3 from three-point distance, but he still managed to score an uber-efficient 32 points on 20 field goal attempts, going 12-of-17 on two-point attempts and a perfect 8-of-8 from the free throw line.
While the shotmaking was certainly the headliner for Murray, both in this game and throughout Denver’s playoff run, his passing has also seen an uptick. That showed up with eight impressive assists in this spot and, even on a night when the Lakers increased their series lead, Murray further cemented his new standing as a star-level performer on the league’s biggest stage.
3. The Nuggets aren’t dead yet
After back-to-back comebacks from 3-1 deficits, the jokes write themselves with regard to the Nuggets. Many on the internet have already insisted that Denver has Los Angeles “right where they want them” after a Game 4 loss and, while that specifically isn’t accurate, the Nuggets do have reason for optimism.
As noted above, this game essentially swung on the first quarter and, beyond that, the Nuggets were simply unable to secure defensive rebounds. Denver was outscored by 19 points in the second-chance department, and the Lakers generated 35 free throws with aggressive play and a few choice whistles. The broader story, though, is that Denver has been right there for three consecutive games, playing Los Angeles to a 325-325 draw while only picking up one victory.
Mike Malone has his team bought in at a high level, with guys playing above their heads on both ends. Murray and Jokic are starring offensively while playing the best defense of their respective careers — although Jokic had one of his worst games of the playoffs in Game 4 — and the duo of Jerami Grant and Monte Morris has also stepped up when it counts.
It doesn’t need to be said that the Lakers are now substantial favorites to advance, and there is no way around that. The Nuggets have shown repeatedly that they have no intention of simply fading away, however, and Denver has the star power and recent high-level experience to steal a win in Game 5 and make things interesting again.