When the Lakers were heading into the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, they were searching desperately for a way to defend Denver Nuggets star Jamal Murray. In the middle of a breakout run in the NBA playoffs, the 23-year-old scorer was scorching the Lakers through three frames, dropping 22 points on a sizzling 9-13 shooting to that point.
That was when LeBron James went to head coach Frank Vogel with a request: He wanted to take Murray.
“And obviously I granted it. He did a great job down the stretch,” Vogel said after the Lakers closed out their 114-108 win to take a 3-1 series lead. “Nothing was really working to slow him down until LeBron took that assignment, so game ball to him.”
James may not be the defensive player he once was, and he had a poor offensive night by his standards, but he undoubtedly made an impact on Murray, who shot just 3-7 from the field for 10 points in the fourth quarter. He was still good, but James managed to cool him off through the use of just enough physicality and totally enveloping Murray mid-air while contesting his shots.
“I knew it was winning time and Jamal had it going. He’s special,” James said of his request to guard Murray. “For me it’s just trusting my defensive keys, trusting my study of film, trusting personnel and living with the results.”
Anthony Davis wasn’t surprised to see James step up to the challenge. It’s one of the things he respects most about his co-star.
“I think he just loves the challenges, honestly. Especially late game,” Davis said. “He loves to take on those challenges and make them score over him. He’s a great defensive player.”
James doesn’t always get credit for that aspect of his game at age 35, but his communication was key in quarterbacking a Lakers defense that ranked among the best in the league for the entire year, and in the playoffs he’s been even more instrumental.
During the postseason, the Lakers have been 8.3 points per 100 possessions better with James on the floor than they are with him off. The only larger differential on the team is Anthony Davis (9.6), the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year. And in a postseason in which a few stars have said their coaches are in charge of their defensive assignments down the stretch, James requested to take on even more responsibility than he was already shouldering to make an impact on a night when he struggled on the other end.
“He wants that challenge. He wants that one-on-one challenge, and he did a hell of a job,” Davis said.
"LeBron did a remarkable job down the stretch." @realtuffjuice goes #Access360 to break down @KingJames' defense in the fourth. pic.twitter.com/Z8Wm8bPHlQ— Spectrum SportsNet (@SpectrumSN) September 25, 2020
Per NBA's matchup data, LeBron defended Murray on 8.5 possessions. Murray shot 1/4 from the field for two points with one shooting foul and one turnover. https://t.co/UF1t7DqxQJ— Jacob Rude (@JacobRude) September 25, 2020
For Murray, getting James to request to switch onto him could have been a surreal moment, a welcome-to-stardom memory, but it wasn’t something he was eager to reflect on after losing.
“With LeBron I do the same stuff I do when I see Caruso, when I see Rondo and KCP and Kawhi, Paul George and Pat Bev,” Murray said. “I do the same thing. Appreciate the respect, but we’ve got to win the game.”
Except for it wasn’t exactly the same thing. For one quarter at least, he wasn’t quite as dominant as he’s been against those other guys he mentioned. James made sure of that, just like he said he would.
“I told my teammates that I had him,” James said. “We were able to get a couple stops.”
On a night the Lakers struggled to do exactly that, those stops couldn’t have come at a better time.
For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.