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Jamal Murray can become the closer for the Denver Nuggets

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Miami Heat v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

The Denver Nuggets haven’t lit the world on fire on offense out of the gates for a few reasons. One reason why they’re 5-2 and tied for second in the Western Conference though has been the play of Jamal Murray, who’s star is budding right before our eyes.

Coming into the 2019-20 season, the Denver Nuggets were expected to be Nikola Jokic’s team first and foremost with everyone else falling into place. Seven games into the season, the player that has grabbed this team’s attention is point guard Jamal Murray. Fresh off of a contract extension this offseason, Murray has been doing his best to live up to that shiny new paycheck he signed for.

He’s averaging career-highs in several categories, such as points, rebounds, steals and free-throw attempts. He’s also shooting 45.2 percent from the field, which is the best mark of his career thus far. Jokic is still the leading man on this team, but the offense isn’t flowing like head coach Michael Malone wants it to which is why Murray has had to step up, and he’s been pulling his weight more often than not.

He still doesn’t bring a ton of value on the defensive end of the floor—his Defensive Box Plus/Minus remains a -0.2 on that end—but you’re willing to live with those warts because he can be a star on the other end of the floor. His ability to get to the rim due to his work off the dribble is something that few players can do. While feeding Jokic in the post has often been a consistent form of offense for Denver in the past, they’re now developing someone that can get them a basket in isolation when they need one.

In isolation, Murray has been one of the league’s better scorers. He’s averaging 1.09 points per possession, which puts him ahead of players like James Harden, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Quite average players, right? Each of those stars is utilizing isolation possessions more often than Murray which explains his efficiency, but it shows that Murray has that ability in him.

Coming out of college, Murray was expected to be more of a scoring guard than a pure point guard, which fits perfectly alongside Jokic. He can cut to the basket and shoot off of screens, but he’s showing an advanced ability this season to go and get his own basket. When teams overcommit to Jokic or close out hard because of Murray’s ability to shoot from 3-point range, he’s getting around them for easy baskets.

The key for Murray when it comes to isolation basketball is to maintain a balance between his and the rest of the team’s play. Generally, isolation scorers will focus on scoring more than finding the open teammate, which doesn’t always work. When the ball is moving, specifically in this offense, good things happen for everyone, as evidenced by their win against the Miami Heat on Tuesday that saw them register 35 assists on 45 baskets. Jamal should feel free to hunt his shot when he’s feeling it, but he has to keep his teammates involved.

The area where he’s been the best for this team has been down the stretch in close games, which Denver has been in five out of their seven contests. Not every team has a “Get me a Bucket” guy, but that’s what Murray is looking like for Denver. In the five close games that they’ve had, they’re 4-1 with Murray doing a lot of the heavy lifting. He’s averaging 4.8 points per game in clutch minutes. Among players that have played in five or more close games, that mark ranks fourth.

You want your best players to stretch your lead or cut down a deficit when they’re in at the end of games, and Murray has been one of the best at doing that. He can be the Mariano Rivera, the greatest baseball closer of all time (@GbridgfordNFL on Twitter) if you disagree, for Denver. Murray has been one of the best at the end of close games, as he’s registering a +2.8 average plus-minus in those clutch minutes. In contrast, players like DeMar DeRozan and Damian Lillard are in the negative of that statistic. Murray is performing better than some of the league’s best.

Looking back at Denver’s history, the last time they had a player that could come in and shut the door on an opponent this well was Carmelo Anthony. Anthony didn’t bring much on the defensive end, but he more than made up for it with his offense. That’s what Murray can bring the Nuggets, but he also knows how to fit into a team-friendly offense far better than Melo ever did.

Denver Nuggets v Orlando Magic Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

One of the more underrated facets of Murray’s game this season, that will be an interesting stat to track throughout the year, has been his ability to get to the free-throw line. Last season, Denver was just 25th in free throw attempts per game, and Jokic was the team leader with 4.4. Murray is averaging 4.6 free throws per game. Those baskets matter for several reasons, especially for the way this Denver team is playing.

Denver is currently the second-slowest team in the NBA in terms of pace, and they haven’t exactly been chomping at the bit to change that trend. When teams like the New Orleans Pelicans have made a concerted effort to run against them, they’re more or less just letting it happen. Free throws are the perfect tool to stop those runs. It adds a foul to one player while putting points on the board for you, and it kills their momentum while giving your guys a breather.

When teams are trying to run Denver out of the arena, Murray can slow that pace down in an isolation play before driving to the rim to get fouled. He’s averaging a career-high in free-throw rate at 30.8 percent, which is a full seven percent higher than his previous career-high. That’s still lower than we’ve seen Harden register in any of his NBA seasons, but it’s showing growth, which is what you want from your young core players.

Murray is proving to be the barometer for this team early on in the season. As he goes, the team has gone. As long as Jokic remains in his funk, they’re going to continue to take their lead from Murray’s output. He’s showing that he can live up to those expectations thus far. His teammates can rely on him throughout the game. At the end of the game, when Murray is tasked with going and getting a bucket, Malone and the fans can have faith in him to come through for them.