With the Los Angeles Lakers clinging to a four-point lead with just more than five minutes left in the fourth quarter on Thursday, James — whose eldest son, 15-year-old LeBron James Jr., is closer in age to the 23-year-old Murray than he is — switched onto the Nuggets’ supernova.
“LeBron asked for the assignment, and obviously I granted it,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said of the 35-year-old James after the Lakers’ 114-108 win drew them to within one victory of the NBA Finals, as L.A. now leads the Western Conference finals 3-1.
Murray, who had 28 points on 12-for-17 shooting to that point, had helped carve a Lakers 12-point lead down to a two-possession game, eyeing the chance to steal Game 4 and even up the series.
James had other ideas. He was the only Laker to guard Murray in clutch time — defined as the last five minutes of a game when the point differential is five or fewer — and held him to 0-for-2 shooting.
Murray had four points in the final five minutes, but those came at the free throw line.
“I knew it was winning time, and Jamal had it going,” James said of his decision to guard him.
Still trailing by four a few possessions later, the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Murray drove down the middle of the lane with the 6-foot-9, 250-pound James attached to his hip and missed a layup after double-clutching his release to try to evade James’ contest with 3:46 to go.
And with 2:56 left, now down only three points, Murray drove on James again and missed, again, as the Lakers’ star outstretched both of his arms to swallow up any air space as he closed on Murray from behind.
Even though James — who finished with 26 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists to Murray’s 32 points, 3 rebounds and 8 dimes — got the better of Murray, the Denver guard earned James’ respect.
“The kid is special,” James said. “He has an array of shots. Triple threat from the 3, midrange and also in the paint. For me, it’s just trusting my defensive keys. Trusting my study of film. Trusting personnel. And living with the results.
“I told my teammates that I had him and everyone else can kind of stay at bay and stay home. I was able to get a couple stops, and we were able to rebound the basketball, which is the most important thing.”
James, a 17-year veteran, came into the game averaging a career postseason low of 34.4 minutes in these playoffs, as Vogel has tried to manage his legs.
On Thursday, James played 38 minutes and said he was plenty prepared for his matchup with Murray down the stretch.
“I don’t reserve any energy,” James said. “I’m on the floor, I give it all I got. If I need a break, I ask for a break. Coach has done a good job of getting me out throughout the course of the game. I don’t look at it as a reserve tank. I’ve got pretty good energy when I’m on the floor all the time.
“It’s winning time and I don’t have a chance or time to be…
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