Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic lead Nuggets past Lakers in Game 3 - Sports Illustrated

Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic Show Lakers That the Nuggets Aren't Going Away

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Some NBA players are so smart, and process the game so fluidly, that they can play faster than superior athletes, and they make their teammates play faster, too. If you are really fortunate, you find a guy like that. The Denver Nuggets have two.

Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic probably won’t win the NBA championship next month. But they keep showing why they can, with a style of basketball that has to appeal to anybody who loves the game and not just the highlights. If they were a movie, you would want to watch it again and again, finding subtle charms and new bits of brilliance each time.

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The Nuggets’ 114–106 Game 3 win over the Lakers reminded us of what the rest of the playoffs have already shown: Murray and Jokic are not going away, in this series or in the next decade. The longer they play, the more they distinguish themselves. The Nuggets came back from 3–1 deficits in the first two rounds, and they are trying to come back from 2–0 down in this one, and people keep praising their resilience. That is part of it, to be sure. But also, with every game in a series, Murray and Jokic have more information to sort through.

“Hand in hand—there’s two parts to that,” Murray said. “You definitely learn more about your opponent, what to look for, tendencies and all that.”

On the two possessions that finished off the Lakers, Murray made winning plays. First, with Denver up 103–99, Murray started to back down the Lakers’ Alex Caruso, but as soon as Caruso bit on a fake, Murray dribbled away, realized he had time to set his feet behind the three-point line, and drained a three over Caruso. The craftiness that led to the three was every bit as impressive as the actual shot.

On Denver’s next possession, Murray drove, realized his shot would get block, dished to Paul Millsap, backpedaled so he was open, caught a pass, drove again, found Millsap again, and scored. He made a lot of choices, and executed them, in a very short span.

Denver coach Michael Malone said Tuesday night that “we have two superstars in Nikola and Jamal,” and it is amazing to think that a month ago, that would have seemed like hype. Now it is a statement of fact. If Murray was just a good player who had a hot series against Utah, somebody would have exposed him by now. Instead, he keeps exploiting every advantage.

Malone says that he sees teams game-planning more and more for Murray. It isn’t working. Blitz him and he passes the ball before he is trapped. Stick a bigger player on him, as the Lakers did at times, and he will beat his man off the dribble. Pester him with somebody smaller, and he uses his size. Murray is a master at creating just as much space as he needs.

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Jokic jokes that he is slow, and the jokes are funny because he is slow. But he doesn’t play slow. He is one of the best passing centers in history, capable of firing an overhand dart to a cutting teammate or making a no-look bounce pass in traffic. Still, the physical limitations are real, and this is especially evident against the Lakers.

In his first five games against Lakers this year, including Game 1 of this series, Jokic averaged 17.2 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists—a dropoff from his regular-season averages of 19.9, 9.7 and 7. It is easy to see why. L.A. has the freakiest center in the league, Anthony Davis, a player who is longer and much more athletic than Jokic. The Lakers can also throw a bunch of different large pests at Jokic—they have been starting each game with Javale McGee, then move on to Davis, Dwight Howard and others. For the first game and a half of this series, Jokic looked overwhelmed. But players this smart do not stay overwhelmed for long.

“We were one step slower than them,” Jokic said. “They were surprising us—by the pace, by the rebounding.”

Jokic has recovered in an assortment of ways. He counters the Lakers’ size by facing the basket. When he gets too much attention, he fires to a teammate. Howard has played this series like a pro-wresting heel. He appears to want to get inside Jokic’s head, but Jokic is far too smart to let it happen. He said he did not enter the game thinking about scoring.

“To be honest, they’re doing their job,” Jokic said of the Lakers. “I don’t think about it as a matchup. I’m just trying to play the game the way it’s supposed to be played.”

Murray and Jokic have an extremely advanced understanding of the way the game is supposed to be played. They are also both level-headed enough to be honest about when they don’t reach their standard, no matter what the stats say. After his 28-point, 12-assist night, Murray said, “I didn’t think I had a good game in total, to be honest with you. I didn’t get everybody organized. I had too many live-ball turnovers that led to points.”

The Nuggets still trail this series 2–1. The Lakers still have LeBron James and Anthony Davis. But Murray and Jokic have 48 more minutes of information in their brains that they can take to Game 4.