- Jerami Grant answers the bell against LeBron and AD
- Jamal Murray was an all-around star point guard
- Role players have to step up for the Nuggets to win
- Lakers shoot poorly, attempt fewer efficient shots tonight
- The Paul Millsap vs Michael Porter Jr. conundrum
What a win for the Denver Nuggets tonight. Nikola Jokic got the Nuggets started, the bench provided a major boost in the second quarter, things looked good until they got sloppy, and the Nuggets pulled away late in the fourth quarter. Denver led by 18 points through three quarters, but the Los Angeles Lakers gave it one last big run and scared Nuggets fans half to death.
Fortunately, Jamal Murray played like a superstar after that, hitting some incredible shots, making slick passes, and controlling the tempo/pace of the game in the closing minutes. That’s what stars do, and he’s a star.
My five takeaways from tonight’s win:
Take a bow, Jerami Grant
How in the world does Jerami Grant have the energy and athleticism to guard LeBron James and Anthony Davis for 34 minutes tonight and still get to the rim 12 times? He played like a star out there on the floor today, and when the Nuggets desperately needed someone to step up and be a third scorer, Grant answered the call. He had 26 points on 7-of-11 from the field and 2-of-5 from three, but the big difference was going 10-of-12 at the free throw line. He was slashing to the rim against LeBron James, driving the lane in transition, and going up strong as opposed to avoiding contact. He was rewarded for his efforts twelve-fold.
I don't know if this was by design, but Jokic and Grant switch assignments on this weak side pick and roll to get Jokic popping and Grant rolling and it turns into a dunk.— Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn) September 23, 2020
Fascinating, and great set design by Michael Malone if it was scripted. pic.twitter.com/Eg1iZSFxjj
Grant has been the third most important Nuggets player in all three of Denver’s playoff series this season behind Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. His defensive versatility has had him as the primary defender against Donovan Mitchell, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Anthony Davis, and LeBron James in these playoffs, and he continues to answer the bell defending big time players. Would it be better if he hit outside shots more frequently? Yes. Would it be better if he rebounded more frequently? Yes. When you have a player who fits so seamlessly into what you’re doing on both sides though, it makes life easier for the stars, as well as other role players who don’t have the added responsibility.
Pay Jerami Grant.
Jamal Murray played like an all-around superstar tonight
Late game performances like the one Jamal Murray had tonight are what makes him a star, but everything he did from the opening tip to the final buzzer is representative of the growth Murray has had in the bubble thus far. He consistently found the open pass and has worked hard to generate opportunities for teammates throughout these playoffs. On top of the scoring he usually offers, Murray dished out 12 assists, grabbed eight rebounds, and even generated two steals defensively.
Murray was everywhere on the floor tonight. Often, he switched onto LeBron and AD defensively tonight, and in the post, neither of those guys found any legitimate traction in that matchup. The Nuggets sent help, but Murray wasn’t bullied like he was last season against Rodney Hood and the Portland Trail Blazers. This was a major area of growth for Denver’s max contract point guard.
But when the going got rough, Murray and Jokic helped settle the Nuggets down, and Murray hit several difficult shots to put away any discussion of a Lakers comeback, From a turnaround three on Alex Caruso to a deeeeep dagger three over Anthony Davis, Murray did what he has proven capable of throughout this postseason run and continues to raise his game to another stratosphere.
Role players made the necessary plays off the bench
It wasn’t just Jerami Grant who contributed in a big way to this Nuggets victory. Monte Morris and Michael Porter Jr. each had big moments in this one too.
Starting with Morris, the Nuggets needed another guy who could reliably create a shot for himself and others off the bench while also not being a liability to miss catch-and-shoot threes. They got that from Morris tonight, who dropped 14 points on 5-of-7 from the field and 2-of-4 from three-point range. He was confident attacking inside the arc today and even chipped in a couple of threes, one in transition that capped off a big bench run and forced a Lakers timeout.
Michael Porter Jr. chipped in nine points on six shots himself to go with six rebounds, two assists, and two steals. His three-pointer over LeBron James while waiting for LeBron to catch up him was insanely difficult and slightly disrespectful, but Porter is capable of making those kinds of plays on a consistent basis. He was also active defensively and made some important rotations, deflections, and rebounds.
The Nuggets will need their bench again this series. With Grant going off, they didn’t have to be spectacular; however, their efforts in the second quarter helped the Nuggets carve out a lead they never relinquished, which feels like a big deal.
Lakers shot it poorly while feeling the pressure
It really does make a difference when the opposing team FEELS YOU on the defensive end.
The Nuggets turned up the defensive pressure for the first three quarters of this game on LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the rest of the Lakers cast of characters, and the result was a paltry 6-of-26 perimeter shooting performance, only 22 free throws generated, and a 107.4 Defensive Rating for the Nuggets in a series where there are several matchup problems. LeBron is always a matchup nightmare, but Grant made him work for every single basket in the halfcourt today. Paul Millsap continues to defend Anthony Davis as well as can be asked of anyone.
The real kicker today was the Lakers’ supporting cast missing jumpers. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope made two three-pointers, but he was the only Lakers player to make multiple outside shots. Nobody else found a rhythm, and the Nuggets have to be happy with the shot distribution too. Rajon Rondo went 0-for-3 from deep, Alex Caruso went 0-for-4, Danny Green went 1-for-3, and KCP only attempted five threes. Kyle Kuzma even had a record-scratch moment in the fourth quarter when he was wide open and hesitated.
It makes a difference when the Nuggets prevent the Lakers’ stars an easy runway to the rim. They will still find ways to make it work, but making life difficult is all Denver can really do. It worked.
The Paul Millsap versus Michael Porter Jr. conundrum
As stated above, both Millsap and Porter contributed to the win tonight but in drastically different ways. Millsap helped make life hell for AD, and Porter’s contributions were more all-around.
Lakers forward Anthony Davis is shooting 25 percent against Nuggets forward Paul Millsap in the Western Conference Finals and 65 percent against all other Denver defenders. @ESPNStatsInfo— Marc J. Spears (@MarcJSpears) September 23, 2020
Both players have a place in the Nuggets rotation, but had Denver been down in that fourth quarter rather than up, I think Porter has to be out there to close games. The Nuggets desperately need players offensively who can step into difficult shots with ease while also converting the easy ones more frequently. Millsap was 2-of-8 from the field today with both baskets coming in the restricted area. If he can’t space the floor at all and the Lakers continue to dare Millsap to take shots, that will collapse much of Denver’s clutch offense.
However, the argument remains that Millsap should be on the floor any time the Lakers play Anthony Davis with Dwight Howard. That configuration gives the Nuggets something they have to deal with on the interior, and having Millsap on the floor instead of Porter gives the Nuggets a guy that can just as credibly match up with James, Davis, or Howard. That defensive versatility wins games.
It’s a tough decision for Malone to have to make continuously. Millsap makes it easier if he makes outside shots going forward.