'He's one tough cookie': Jamal Murray has cemented himself as an all-time playoff performer (2024)

DENVER — In the moments after Jamal Murray ended a series for the Denver Nuggets and ended a season for the Los Angeles Lakers, he bumped into his head coach Michael Malone and delivered maybe the understatement of the year.

He had just hit the shot that won yet another game for the Nuggets, his second such make of the first round. He did so with a strained left calf that limited him in nearly debilitating ways on Monday night at Ball Arena.

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But the sense of humor, which Murray has plenty of when he’s in the right mood, was as good as ever.

“It’s a good thing you played me tonight, coach,” Murray told Malone. “I don’t know if we win if I don’t play tonight.”

Jamal Murray has yet to be an NBA All-Star in his career. He’s never made an All-NBA team. And yet, how many guys are you taking over him in a playoff setting? That’s what you call a rhetorical question because the answer should universally be: Not many.

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Murray’s put up 50-point heaters in the postseason. His playoff run last spring was instrumental to the Nuggets winning their first title in franchise history. Whatever Murray is during the regular season, he’s cemented himself as one of the all-time playoff risers in the history of basketball. And in no way should the previous sentence be a controversial statement.

Monday night added to his lore. When Murray dribbled twice to his left and stepped back on one foot to shake Lakers guard Austin Reaves, we all knew what was about to happen. The 15-footer was pure. It gave Denver a 108-106 win at Ball Arena. It gave the Nuggets a 4-1 series win. It gave Denver a much-needed respite before a series with the Minnesota Timberwolves that promises to be a grueling one.

“In truth, we were all banged up,” Malone said. “We didn’t know who we were going to have available to finish this game.”

In a Game 3 win in Los Angeles, backup point guard Reggie Jackson sprained his ankle, an injury that put him on crutches and in a protective boot during Denver’s off day at its Santa Monica hotel. In the first half of Monday night’s Game 5, starting shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope sprained his ankle bad enough that he left the game twice during the remainder of the first half. He came back in the second half, gutted through it, and made multiple big shots.

Murray strained his calf in the second half of Game 4, Denver’s lone loss of the series. He began Monday as questionable to play. So Murray arrived at Ball Arena earlier than normal to receive treatment, try to stretch and loosen the calf, and make a decision as to whether he would be able to play. Calf strains are by nature a tricky and dangerous injury. They are soft tissue injuries that heal slowly. More importantly, they typically lead to more serious ailments, such as Achilles injuries.

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In past playoffs, the 2019 NBA Finals series featuring the Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors changed when then-Warriors forward Kevin Durant returned from a calf strain and ended up rupturing his Achilles. In 2021, a second-round series featuring the Utah Jazz and the Los Angeles Clippers turned, in part, when then-Jazz point guard Mike Conley strained his calf. In this current postseason, the Milwaukee Bucks haven’t had Giannis Antetokounmpo in a first-round matchup against the Indiana Pacers because of a strained calf he suffered toward the end of the regular season.

These examples serve to tell the story of why the Nuggets themselves didn’t want Murray to play on Monday night. And on the surface, the reasoning was sound. With a 3-1 lead heading into Game 5, if Denver defeated the Lakers without Murray that would give the point guard seven days to heal. If not? Then the hope would be that Murray would be ready to go in Thursday night’s Game 6 in Los Angeles.

“I came in a little earlier just to get some treatment, and I did feel like I could play,” Murray said. “They told me no. I didn’t say no. I didn’t want to leave my teammates out there. I didn’t want to hang them out to dry. I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I didn’t everything that I could in order to be on the floor tonight.”

Monday night wasn’t the first time this season that Murray played in a game against Denver’s advice. Toward the end of the regular season, the Nuggets wanted to sit Murray against the Utah Jazz to protect against Murray’s left knee soreness. The Utah game was the front end of a back-to-back, a road game, with the Nuggets then facing the Timberwolves back at Ball Arena the next night. On the team flight to Salt Lake City, Murray approached Malone and begged him to play. He did so and turned in a big fourth quarter to propel the Nuggets over the Jazz, and played the following night, a win over Minnesota.

Murray is an honest and raw human being. He’s passionate and will let you know exactly what he’s thinking. Malone is a good fit for him because he’s open to honest and sometimes harsh and emotional conversation. This was a key on Monday night. The worry, of course, was that Murray would play in Game 5 and injure the calf, and that’s something the Nuggets didn’t want. But Murray wasn’t going to sit out of a playoff game, not if he could help it. So, he and Malone had that talk. And then Murray and Malone and the training staff had that talk. They laid out a plan, and Murray suited up and got ready to play.

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“I knew he was going to play, to be honest,” Denver star Nikola Jokić said. “Without talking to him, I knew he wants to play and that he wants to be in the big games. Even though he didn’t shoot his best, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”

Murray was 13 of 28 from the field on Monday night, while making five of his 10 3-point attempts. He scored a game-high 32 points, including making gargantuan shots down the stretch outside of the game-winner. He dunked on LeBron James, who was amazing in his own right, and flexed in front of him. He sliced through the defense at will in the final five minutes.

He wasn’t anywhere close to 100 percent.

From the opening possessions, it was clear Murray couldn’t explode off the dribble the way he wanted. It was clear that he didn’t have his usual first step. The Nuggets wanted to limit his minutes as much as they could, but he ended up playing 40 on Monday night. Ironically, that may have been the best thing for Murray, because playing kept the calf warm and loose, and Murray played and shot the ball better as the game progressed.

“I was moving well enough to play,” Murray said. “But jumping was the biggest thing for me. That was the toughest challenge, leaving the ground, even on my jump shot. So I went to a deeper gather before I shot the ball, because I wanted to put as little stress on my calf as possible.”

Deep into Monday night, Malone talked about the question the Nuggets faced. Did they want to sit Murray? Or did they want to put their chips in the middle of the table, and go all in on trying to end the series with the Lakers? It was a collaborative conversation, but eventually, the Nuggets settled on the latter. The prize was a win in Game 5, nearly a week of rest and the fact that Murray didn’t hurt himself further.

And now, the Nuggets and Wolves get to the series many have been waiting for.

“The bigger the moment, the bigger Jamal Murray shines,” Malone said. “He’s one tough cookie.”

(Photo: David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

'He's one tough cookie': Jamal Murray has cemented himself as an all-time playoff performer (2)'He's one tough cookie': Jamal Murray has cemented himself as an all-time playoff performer (3)

Tony Jones is a Staff Writer at The Athletic covering the Utah Jazz and the NBA. A native of the East Coast and a journalism brat as a child, he has an addiction to hip-hop music and pickup basketball, and his Twitter page has been used for occasional debates concerning Biggie and Tupac. Follow Tony on Twitter @Tjonesonthenba

'He's one tough cookie': Jamal Murray has cemented himself as an all-time playoff performer (2024)

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