Ball Arena is an Unassailable Fortress
Jamal Murray – A
Even Jamal Murray knew the Denver Nuggets took the longer route to victory. By his admission, things might have been easier if he had hit his shots in the second and third quarters. But as winning time approached, Murray felt his back scrape against a wall. There was nowhere to go but forward, and that’s when Murray’s at his best.
He burst through in the final quarter and broke the game open with an outrageous flurry. Murray dropped 23 points on 6 of 7 from the field in the fourth. He channeled an adrenaline overload into a furious rally, and his battle cries grew contagious. The sounds of pride, relief, and joy permeated Ball Arena as the crowd embraced the run. Murray might have lost his way at times, but he carried the Nuggets home with a spectacular display of his true nature — a can’t-miss competitor. This is who you want on your side of the war.
After the game, Malone lauded Murray’s defensive effort, emphasizing the importance of staying locked in even as his shot went wayward. “You missed a shot,” Malone told him in the huddle. “I don’t care. I care about your defense.” Murray responded with a clutch deflection over the top of LeBron James. He finished with ten rebounds and four steals. Malone gave him one of two DPOG chains.
For those counting at home, two of Murray’s fourth-quarter buckets came out of the pick-and-roll while he went to his right. Quirky.
Nikola Jokić – A
Anthony Davis shot 4 of 15 from the field in game two. Rarely do we start a Jokić grade with his defense, but it’s warranted here. He was directly involved with a lot of those misses. As the game went on, Denver dropped Jokić in their pick-and-roll defense, and a seemingly exhausted Davis couldn’t make him pay with jumpers or floaters.
Davis was so exhausted that the Lakers resorted to guarding Jokić with LeBron James. James turned up his physicality and proved a formidable defender. But the effort drained him as well. Both Laker stars looked out of gas as the clock struck winning time. Once again, James settled for the late-game 3s Denver wanted him to take.
There’s a theme to these opening games in the Western Conference Finals. The Lakers are keeping up with the Nuggets to some extent, but with no wins to show for it. And they sure look tired. Jokić put them through the gauntlet with his tenacious rebounding, outstanding transition play, and grueling post-ups. In game two, Jokić also looked tired down the stretch, but 27 was there to carry the weight. The Nuggets are built to win in multiple ways, especially in Ball Arena.
Michael Porter Jr. – B-
Porter struggled in some areas through most of the contest. Three quick fouls took him out of the game and rhythm. His defense suffered a bit as he took some time to recenter his focus. So did his confidence. Porter turned down multiple open 3s in the second half, only to drive into a crowded lane with little of a plan. His teammates implored him to shoot, which is always good advice for MPJ.
Porter got himself going with a big shot in the third. Jokić found him in transition, and Porter turned an initial mishandle into a crafty gather as he rose and buried a 3. He hit another over the outstretched arm of Jarred Vanderbilt to tie the game at the top of the fourth. Then he put a cherry on Murray’s run, forcing a timeout call from Darvin Ham. With only 19 minutes played entering the fourth, Malone stuck with Porter for the rest of the way. Good things happen MPJ is on the floor.
Aaron Gordon – C
Gordon’s inability to knock down open jumpers, and what that does to the spacing, is a topic of much conversation in the Western Conference Finals. Suppose these games and that dialogue were your introductions to Gordon in a Nuggets uniform. You might wonder why Denver plays him as much as they do. But for 82 games and then some, AG’s found a way to seal the cracks between Denver’s best players. As game two wound down, he got involved with high-impact effort plays. He beat everyone to an essential late-game rebound and spiked a Dennis Schroder layup into the ground. It wasn’t his best playoff performance, but he found a way to make winning plays.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – C-
Kenny P didn’t play the hero role this time around. He, too, encountered early foul trouble, which threw him out of rhythm and Malone’s rotation out of whack. Those two dynamics compounded to create a frustrating set of circumstances for Pope. He remained vocal on the sideline while Bruce Brown closed in his stead.
Bruce Brown – A
Brown is a fearless competitor. He says what he wants, backs it up, and starts talking again. Anger fuels him. D’Angelo Russell was his target in Game One, and then his media availability before Game Two. He spoke on the strategy of playing DLo off the floor, noting that “he’s not the best defender,” before adding, “he tries.”
Russell knocked down a big 3 in Brown’s face early. He pointed at the Denver guard, seeming to acknowledge what was playing out in the battle behind the microphones. ESPN’s commentators admonished Brown and Michael Malone for “poking the bear.” That’s right when the script flipped.
Brown knocked down two 3s, grabbed five boards, dished out three assists, and recorded two combined steals and blocks. He was a menace, turning and talking to the Lakers’ bench after each bucket. He wants them to hear him. He finished a +16 to Russell’s -16.
Jeff Green – D
The Jeff Green minutes were mainly a disaster. He couldn’t stop Rui Hachimura, which nearly cost Denver the game. He also shot 1 of 4 from the field and grabbed only two rebounds in 14:45 on the floor. In his last chance to make a positive impact, however, he stepped up, literally, and drew a critical charge.
The charge notwithstanding, it might be time to try Zeke Nnaji off the bench. Given how long he’s been on the shelf, it’s a tough ask, but he’s better suited to guard Rui.