There is a version of last night's Game 4 between the Nuggets and Lakers that ends with poems being written about Jamal Murray. Denver's young point guard spent the game showing off some of the most daring, exhilarating shot-making you'll ever see on a basketball court, and that's probably all anyone would be talking about this morning if Murray had been able to lead the Nuggets to victory. Unfortunately for him, he had to deal with LeBron James.
(If you happened to miss last night's game, please do take a moment to look at some of Murray's highlights. There was the left-handed leaner, the shot-put floater over Anthony Davis, and this borderline iconic reverse layup. Mama mia!)
Even though the Nuggets repeatedly failed to get themselves over the hump and grab a lead, it felt like the game was still there for the taking as it headed into crunch time. That's because Murray seemed incapable of putting the ball anywhere but through the hoop. Sensing this danger, James claimed the assignment against Murray down the stretch, and proceeded to make two of the biggest defensive stops of the game.
With less than four minutes to play and the Lakers leading 103-99, Murray used a slick hesitation dribble to get a step on James, who managed to recover in time to contest the shot at the rim and force Murray to hang in the air and toss an awkward clunker off the rim. A few possessions later, with the Lakers' lead cut to three, this happened:
There are two things about that sequence that must have been frustrating for Murray. The first is the most obvious, which is that it is not fun to suddenly be defended by a grizzly bear in a jersey, and one who has never been shy about meeting aggressive offensive players with an equal amount of defensive aggression at the point of attack. The other is that nothing LeBron James does on a basketball court can exist independently of the fact that he is LeBron James: World Historic Superstar. Which is to say, it must be difficult for Murray, and many other observers, to conclude the only reason he wasn't sent to the free-throw line after that final drive of the game is that the guy who might have fouled him wears the number 23.
Even the most non-conspiratorial NBA observer might have a hard time looking at James's 14 free-throw attempts and ability to escape any whistles down the stretch and not conclude that his name had something to with those outcomes. The thought seemed to be weighing on Murray after the game, whose mood was noticeably sour as he spoke to reporters:
During a long answer about his frustration with the referees, Murray said, "LeBron's gonna go get his and he's going to... you know, so. Just got to look ahead to it and play through it. We're the younger team, the youngest team, whatever we are, and so we're going to have to earn their respect if we're going to prevail."
Murray has a right to be as cheesed off as he wants to be, but if he and the Nuggets are going to get back into this series, the worst thing they could do is fixate on the referees instead of the 12 offensive rebounds and 25 second-chance points they surrendered. Murray was correct to say that the only thing the Nuggets can do now is elevate their game and play through bad calls, perceived or otherwise. There's a hard lesson that anyone who wants to dethrone LeBron James eventually has to learn: Nobody's going to help you do it, and nobody's going to feel sorry for a sore loser.