Nuggets’ Jamal Murray is back where he belongs: lighting it up on the NBA’s biggest stage (2024)

DENVER — The shot is one of the most difficult you can imagine: deep on the baseline, behind the backboard, with the arc of the ball carrying over the board when it leaves his hands.

Sometimes Jamal Murray gets it right in one take. Sometimes it takes up to 10 minutes before he drains one at the Denver Nuggets practice facility in the upper levels of Ball Arena. During a playoff run that has included a five-game series win over the Minnesota Timberwolves and a current 1-0 lead in a second-round series against the Phoenix Suns, Murray has repeated the ritual after every practice and after every shootaround. He doesn’t excuse himself until he makes one. That’s on top of the bushels of jumpers he makes after practice. It’s on top of the work he does at practice or shootaround.

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Murray is locked in. That much was made clear when he sat down for an interview with The Athletic. He’s playing in this postseason with a proverbial chip on his shoulder. That much was made clear after Saturday night’s Game 1, when he told media he was tired of answering questions defending the very viability of a possible Nuggets run through the postseason. Murray has been one of the best postseason performers over recent NBA years.

“I don’t how many times I gotta prove myself for y’all to believe in my game…”

Jamal Murray responds to doubts about his comeback pic.twitter.com/DFYHpEwLz2

— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) April 30, 2023

He flips a switch when the lights are the brightest. And if the Nuggets are indeed to make that run, Murray knows he must be one of those most responsible for the fuel.

“The higher the intensity of the game, the better I feel like I play,” Murray told The Athletic. “This is what every kid dreams of. This is what I dreamed of as a kid. My father put me in tough situations growing up. I just really like to play when the pressure is at its highest.”

On Saturday night, Murray screamed “We’re ready for this” to nobody in particular after hitting another 3-pointer against the Phoenix Suns. He dropped 34 on this night, giving Denver that 1-0 lead in the Western Conference second-round series. Against Minnesota, he hit big shot after big shot over a Timberwolves defense that defended him pretty well.

Jamal Murray. Built for this.

34 PTS
5 REB
9 AST
6 3PM

Nuggets take Game 1 🔥 pic.twitter.com/Kxep6mcuU2

— NBA (@NBA) April 30, 2023

Murray is appreciative of the moment, even if a little feisty. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The top-seeded Nuggets have been overlooked. Not many have believed in their overall ability to get to a Western Conference Finals, or an NBA Finals, or win the entire thing. When you’re doubted, feisty is a logical next step. Murray is embracing every shot, every assist, every win, every moment of health he has on the floor.

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The physical rehabilitation from the April, 2021 ACL tear that robbed him of almost two years of basketball was difficult. The mental rehabilitation was almost as difficult, if not more. There were times, especially at the beginning of the process, where he wondered if he could or would get back to this level. Would the knee cooperate? Would he be able to be the Jamal Murray who was dominant in the 2020 Western Conference playoffs that saw the Nuggets make their deepest push through the postseason in the Murray and Nikola Jokić era?

Even in this age of advanced medical science, where ACL tears are easier to recover from, there were dark nights for Murray. Working out and rehabilitating away from the lights when nobody is around is difficult. The second guessing, the questions – all were a natural part of the process. And Murray knew that. So, he threw himself into his work to get back to being the player he had previously been. Rising early in the morning. Maybe guzzling a protein shake before heading to the gym. Lifting. Running. Getting shots up. But, more importantly, facing the road back head on.

“My mindset wasn’t coming back to be the same player,” Murray said. “My mindset was coming back and being a better player than I was. The biggest thing I had to do was build my body back up, not necessarily the skill. It was a lot of work, almost every day. But, I just wanted to get back to playing the way I thought I could. I didn’t want to get too high or low.”

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Away from the lights, Murray grinded. Up close, he saw Jokić win consecutive MVP awards for dragging rosters designed to have Murray’s shot creation on the perimeter to the postseason. Unfortunately for the Nuggets, going into those postseasons was a little like bringing a knife to a gun fight. One year, there was a second-round sweep at the hands of the Suns. Last year, there was a five-game loss in the first round to the Golden State Warriors, the team that would eventually go on to win a title.

No question those losses hurt, but they hurt more because Murray knew he could help. He knew he could make a difference. As a kid, he used to do the countdown to buzzer-beaters — the dream of every kid. Murray was coached hard through high school and AAU by a father who was loving and demanding at the same time. This was a kid who at Kentucky routinely took and made big shots during his one year at the college level.

One of the reasons Murray has been so good in the moment is that he never had any fear of the moment. His confidence, inward and outward, is quiet. But it’s there.

“He think’s he’s the best player on the court, any time he steps on the court, no matter who’s on the court,” Denver forward Aaron Gordon said. “And a lot of times, he’s right.”

So what makes Murray so difficult to guard?

He’s developed into a terrific three-level scorer. He’s capable of catching fire beyond the arc. He has a floater game that he can get to off the dribble. He’s a terrific finisher at the basket. He moves very well off the ball, a rare trait for someone who excels the ball in his hand. At 6-foot-4, his size allows him to get to his spot and shoot over smaller defenders. He and Jokić run pick-and-roll and dribble handoffs extremely well, particularly at the end of games. He’s one of the better pure shot makers in the league, which means you can lock him up for 23 seconds and he is still capable of scoring over you. You know, those shots where you play perfect defense but leave the possession demoralized because he still scores.

Taking that skill and pairing it with his mentality turns Murray into such a dangerous guy come playoff time. On Saturday night, with those 34 points, with nine assists, Murray was the best player on a floor that included Jokić, Kevin Durant and Devin Booker. His prowess simply caused Denver head coach Michael Malone to shake his head and make a single proclamation.

“He’s a bad man.”

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The irony is that Murray is not all the way back. His athleticism and his ability to finish above the rim as he once did is not, even two years out, all the way back from the ACL tear. His ability to explode by defenders has been done it in spurts, but not as consistently as he was doing it before the injury.

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“The quick twitch stuff, it’s not all the way there, I feel like,” Murray said. “But, I just try and enjoy and appreciate the little milestones.”

Murray is so skilled that he has been able to compensate. Where he was a little more athletic before, he’s a little more cerebral now. He dribbles like Steve Nash a lot, meaning if he doesn’t have what he wants when he probes off the dribble or on the pick-and-roll, he simply keeps his dribble and resets.

The Nuggets are far away from where they want to be in this postseason. But, through six games and five wins, they’ve looked every bit like the No. 1 seed. And a lot of that is because Murray, in his first playoff action since that 2020 run, has been every bit the guy he was then.

He’s the one who turns it up when the lights come on.

The one that simply raises his level when it truly counts.

“He’s been our best player,” Jokić said.

(Photo: Bart Young / NBAE via Getty Images)

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'I've come a long way': Jamal Murray's game-winning shot punctuates his journey


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Nuggets’ Jamal Murray is back where he belongs: lighting it up on the NBA’s biggest stage (5)Nuggets’ Jamal Murray is back where he belongs: lighting it up on the NBA’s biggest stage (6)

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

Nuggets’ Jamal Murray is back where he belongs: lighting it up on the NBA’s biggest stage (2024)

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