Down the road, when Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic ride in a victory parade through Denver, feeling the city’s love as they celebrate the first championship in franchise history, the Nuggets will remember this bitter defeat in the NBA bubble, when they put a scare in LeBron James, but could not quite grab the King’s crown.
Denver lost 114-108 Thursday to the Lakers, for one reason and one reason only:
He’s LeBron James. And the Nuggets are not. James is the king, and the NBA bows to him. This league has a star system. Denver might not like it, but that’s not going to change it.
“It’s frustrating … It’s tough,” said Murray, whose 32 points weren’t quite enough.
The best player on the floor was Murray, not James.
“I’m riding the poor kid into the ground,” said Denver coach Michael Malone, after watching Murray take it to James and the Lakers for an insane 45 of the contest’s 48 minutes. “He’s a tough kid and we’re going to continue to ride him.”
While the Nuggets’ recent playoff history suggests recovering from a 3-1 deficit in the Western Conference finals is not impossible, it’s nearly inconceivable that James (or the NBA) will allow Denver to do it against him.
I am convinced, however, that Game 4 was a must-win for both teams. If not for the 14 free throws kindly awarded to James and a dozen offensive rebounds seized by the Lakers, Denver would have taken control of this series.
Woulda, coulda, shoulda.
The King is not dead. The sun, however, is beginning to set on his reign.
In his 17th professional season, LeBron still possesses the triple-double skills to dominate at crunch time. But not every crunch time. He missed 11 of 18 shots from the field.
James is on his last legs as a player who can dictate an outcome of a playoff series.
Murray showed us this is an undeniable truth for the King, with a play late in the second quarter that left James flat-footed, stupefied and slack-jawed.
On the dribble, attacking the rim, all that stood between Murray and two points was the imposing sight of 250 pounds of King James muscle. Respect his elders? Yes. But Murray fears no man, even if he’s an NBA legend.
“I see LeBron,” Murray said, “and I do the same stuff as when I see (L.A. role player Alex) Caruso.”
Defying gravity, Murray flew under and around James, emerging from the King’s shadow. The 23-year-old Nuggets guard then switched the ball to his right hand, and with a sweet scoop off the glass, scored a bucket with hang time worthy of Air Jordan.
“That,” former San Antonio star Manu Ginobili gushed on social media, “was one of the coolest lay-ups I’ve ever seen.”
Prior to Game 4, the Lakers filed a grievance on behalf of James, there was so much hollering from Colorado that the Rockies almost crumbled. I looked at it differently. This was a cry for help from a Los Angeles team that might win the championship, but knows its vulnerabilities are much closer to fatal flaws than coach Frank Vogel would like to admit.
When James complains about not getting to the free-throw line with the respect an NBA graybeard deserves, it’s tangible evidence the King is feeling his age. Begging for entitlement fouls is sure sign there’s creak in the knees of a superstar that ain’t quite what he used to be at age 35.
It’s a drag getting old. The King is among the five greatest players ever to walk on the court, but now James is the person our parents warned us about, an old man yelling at a cloud, as if the basketball gods will cry tears of sympathy because he finished a distant second in the MVP voting.
But James’ pride is powerful. He demanded to guard Murray down the stretch.
“Appreciate the respect,” Murray said.
Denver closed to within 105-102 with 2 minutes, 56 seconds, remaining in the final quarter. Murray drove the lane again and went crashing to the floor with contact from James. The shot missed. No whistle.
“Late in the game, I thought Jamal Murray attacked the basket a few times where there appeared to be contact,” Malone said. “So we’ll watch the film and we’ll send our clips in. We’ll reach out to the NBA …”
Don’t we already know the answer? He’s the King. And the Nuggets are not.
There are two ways of looking at this loss.
It’s a bitter pill, probably tough medicine that will linger in the mouths of Murray and the Nuggets when they exit the playoffs.
But this defeat was also a seed, which ultimately will bear championship fruit for Denver.