The Lakers were looking for an answer to Jamal Murray. LeBron James took the assignment

Remember the first game of the bubble? Lakers against Clippers, the presumed West finals preview that never was? Paul George was hot that night. Kawhi Leonard was surgical. They combined for 58 points, but the Clippers still trailed by two, with the ball, in the closing seconds.

LeBron James had spent the night as a help defender while KCP and Danny Green were trying to bother the Clippers duo. But in the final moments of the game James elected to accept the defensive matchup of guarding Kawhi Leonard.

On the final possession, James stopped Leonard’s drive, and switched onto George, and forced a miss on the last second heave.

There are, what, maybe 10 wings in the world who are quick, strong, smart and long enough to bottle up a Kawhi isolation so effectively, and then close out on George to force a rushed shot?

James is one of them, but he isn’t capable of being that defender for 48 minutes every night. He’s a solid, reliable cog within the team concept, but much more of a passive aggressive defender at his advanced age.

James, through most games, operates in energy conservation mode defensively. The league’s high-usage scorers can’t be 36-minute-per-night stoppers, even if they’re physically capable.

But James has shown that he can pick his spots to turn back into a lockdown defender, taking any defensive assignment.

It’s quite the wild card that Frank Vogel has in his pocket at the end of these tight playoff games. LeBron isn’t a regular-season All-NBA defender, but he can selectively turn into one for any well-timed four-minute stretch.

Jamal Murray killed the Lakers in Game 4 on Thursday. He’s been more effective against their defense than any other guard in these playoffs. Damian Lillard and James Harden don’t have Nikola Jokic — who rearranges the court’s chess pieces and doesn’t allow the Lakers to trap Murray, as they did with Lillard and Harden.

Murray has taken advantage of the inability of the Lakers to trap him. Last night Murray was making everything from wide shots to circus finishes mirroring those MJ used to make.

If the Lakers did not find an answer down the stretch, Murray might’ve dragged these conference finals into a 2-2 tie.

That answer was LeBron.

“LeBron asked for the assignment, and obviously I granted it,” Vogel said.

With just under four minutes left, out of a timeout, the Nuggets trailed by four. Murray brought the ball up and received a quick guard-to-guard screen up top, likely hopeful that Rajon Rondo and James would switch. They didn’t. Rondo showed high and slipped, but LeBron never left the Murray assignment. He slipped by the screen, tracked the attacking drive and contested Murray’s layup.

LeBron then ran the floor and finished a layup to extend the Lakers lead. It was an important sequence in the Lakers 114-108 win.

Basically the exact same sequence materializes less than a minute later. Murray navigates into some high-screen, dribble-handoff action with Jokic, but the Nuggets center soft-screens LeBron, and, when he’s this mentally committed to a defensive possession, that might as well be a chair. LeBron shuffles right by Jokic and stays glued to another isolation Murray drive.

The result: physicality and a strong contest, again, in the restricted area, a controversial no whistle, a tumbling Murray and a pristine 5-on-4 transition opportunity the other way for the Lakers offense. It’s basically like a live-ball turnover. Rondo cashes in a wide-open 14-footer, while Murray is still trying to race back into the frame.

Should there have been a foul call on one or both of these drives by Murray? Maybe. In Denver’s eyes both were missed calls by the referees.

If both fouls were called, the complexion of the game would’ve been different. Murray, a career 88-percent free-throw shooter, would’ve received four free throws, and the Lakers would’ve had to walk up those two proceeding possessions into a set defense.

That might mean an eight-point swing in the closing moments of an eventual six-point Lakers win.

That tweet analysis by Draymond Green was met with tons of scrutiny. I happen to agree with the notion that a foul is a foul, regardless of who is involved. But then there is the reality.

Different moments, different players, different stakes and different referees produce different calls.

There are hierarchies in the NBA.

More physicality is allowed in the playoffs. Separated from the context of this game, most players and coaches prefer a looser whistle down the stretch. Clashes at the rim create difficult, split-second officiating choices.

It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that — at the moment this series was reaching its boiling point — the no-call went in favor of the 16-time All-Star and not the 23-year-old challenger. Tom Brady gets flags that younger quarterbacks don’t. Umpires might stretch their strike zone more for a Greg Maddux. That’s sports.

What I do know: James as the defensive choice down the stretch on Murray bumped the Lakers over the finish line and into this commanding 3-1 series lead, just one win from the NBA Finals. They’ll take the contested, challenging Murray layups at the rim against a skying 6-foot-9 wing — whistle or not — over the looks Murray has been making and creating much of this series against the Lakers’ other defensive options.

LeBron isn’t playing his best right now. His jumper has left him. He’s made only five of his 17 attempted 3s in this series. He’s 5-of-16 from the midrange, including 1-of-11 between 16 and 24 feet.

But great players always find a way impact the game. LeBron did so with his defensive ability in the final minutes.

Going forward James will have to find his shooting stroke, but for now his hounding defense on Murray will be celebrated.

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