Jamal Murray’s elbows were up. He was trying to fight through a LeBron James screen and in the process, he swung one of them through the air and clipped James' chin. LeBron’s ensuing collapse on the court and jaw rubbing should appear on his IMDB page. The hit wasn’t that hard. Not that it mattered.
Murray got a flagrant 1. LeBron got two free throws. Denver got its point across though, en route to a 114-106 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers to tighten the Western Conference finals at 2-1.
In case the Lakers thought the Nuggets were going to pack in after falling down 0-2 — and such thinking would have been foolish — here, courtesy of Murray’s elbow, was proof to the contrary.
Denver doesn’t scare. Denver doesn’t panic. Denver is more than willing to pop you in the mouth if that’s what it takes.
And now it’s a further reminder to LA that it needs to figure out a way to handle these Nuggets quickly because this is not a team you want hanging around. Falling behind in a series is meaningless to them. They trailed 3-1 to both Utah and the Los Angeles Clippers just to get here.
The Lakers entered with a 2-0 series lead in part because of Anthony Davis’ clutch, buzzer-beating three a couple of nights ago. A loss like that will finish a lot of contenders, especially a team as young as the Nuggets.
Instead, it served as a point of confidence. Yes, the Lakers won. But Denver was a dramatic three-pointer away from victory. They’ll take their chances. “I definitely think we kind of gave up Game 2 so we needed to be aggressive,” Jerami Grant said on TNT after.
So they walked into Game 3 and throttled L.A. across the first three quarters, leading at one point by 20. L.A. made a late charge in the fourth, but it was too little, too late, too tired.
“You put yourself in a  point hole, it’s tough to climb out of that,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said.
Thursday’s Game 4 is a monster now. Denver wants to drag you out into deep water and suffocate you. It’s rare to see a team this young that just doesn’t care about having their backs up against the wall or seem so oblivious to who they are playing. The longer this goes, the better for them.
“We are in this for the long haul,” coach Mike Malone said.
“We’re the younger team,” said Murray.
Indeed they are. Murray (age 23), Grant (26), Nikola Jokic (25), Gary Harris (26), Monte Morris (25) and Michael Porter Jr. (22) are all younger than the core of the Lakers, which features four thirty-somethings (LeBron, JaVale McGee, Rajon Rondo and Danny Green).
Davis may be 27, but he looked gassed at times on Tuesday. He scored 27, but secured just two rebounds. James had a 30-point triple-double, but that was pretty much all the consistent offense the Lakers could muscle. Rondo was brilliant in stretches, but everyone else was mostly a disappointment. No one matched Denver's intensity early.
The Lakers are still a flawed and poorly constructed team that is essentially hoping James and Davis can win it all for them. They might, of course. They’re that good. But the longer this goes, the more that can be picked apart and exploited.
“We believe,” Malone said. “This is kind of similar to [the] last series. Game 1, the Clippers blew us out. Game 2 we win. We felt in Game 3 we gave that game away against the Clippers. Well, the way we looked at this situation going into tonight. Game 1 they blew us out. Game 2 we gave away at the end, so we had to right that wrong and get a game under our belt.
“This gives us that much more confidence, letting them know we are here,” Malone continued.
On Sunday, it was Jokic who nearly won it for the Nuggets. On Tuesday, it was Murray with the star turn — 28 points and 12 assists — while Grant and Morris played critical roles.
The Lakers don’t have that kind of depth. The Lakers don’t have that level of energy. The Nuggets are going to keep coming in waves, unbothered by the series deficits or what the public and Vegas expect out of them.
Yes, that’s the Lakers across the way. Yes, that’s LeBron James. Denver gave them the chin music anyway on Tuesday and if they didn’t already have L.A.’s attention, they better now.
“We’re still up 2-1, we have control of the series,” Davis said. “If we come out and play our style of basketball, pushing and being scrappy, especially on defense, we’ll be fine.”
They could be. But they better not wait too long to prove it.
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