From the opening tip, it was clear that the Phoenix Suns had no chance to win the basketball game so long as Jamal Murray was on the floor. He simply wouldn’t allow it.
It only took 17 shots for Jamal Murray to accumulate 36 points last night, and one after the other felt like an uppercut to the chin of the opposition. Murray hit 14-of-17 shots from the field and 6-of-8 shots from three-point range, showcasing his versatile skill set and supernova tendencies when motivated to light it up. This time, he had some extra motivation, going against another young Kentucky star guard in Devin Booker. Those two love to challenge each other, but in every game this season, Murray has easily outshined the guard to come before him at his alma mater.
Going at Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell, and Devin Booker over the last three games was always going to bring out the most competitive side of Murray. Those are guards with which he is compared to most frequently for various reasons. And yet, in his last three contests, Murray has been head and shoulders above the competition.
Tuesday vs Portland: 20 minutes, 20 points on 6-of-9 FG, 3-of-6 3P, 6 assists, 2 turnovers
Wednesday @ Utah: 43 minutes, 31 points on 12-of-26 FG, 4-of-9 3P, 4 assists, 3 turnovers
Saturday @ Phoenix: 35 minutes, 36 points on 14-of-17 FG, 6-of-8 3P, 5 assists, 5 turnovers
This was perhaps Murray’s best three-game stretch of his entire career. They weren’t his best performances, but stringing them together like this should have Nuggets fans extremely encouraged heading into the All-Star Break. Many times in the past, Murray would follow up an elite scoring or playmaking performance with an inefficient stretch. This time, Murray was ready to go as soon as he returned, and it has given the Nuggets their most important boost during the season to date.
Much of the fanfare surrounding the Nuggets this season centers around the emergence of Michael Porter Jr. and excellence of Nikola Jokic. Reactions for both players were absolutely warranted, as Porter has displayed elite star power in his brief time on the court while Jokic has validated Denver’s faith in him as their all-around superstar.
But the last three games have issued a very important reminder to Nuggets fans, and the NBA at large, that Murray is still here. He’s the one who helped Jokic carry Denver during the playoffs last year, using the two-man dance that he and Jokic have perfected in recent years. That proved enough to be one game away from the Western Conference Finals in Denver’s first foray into the playoff field. Now, the Nuggets are about to return for seconds, this time with reinforcements in the form of a healthy Will Barton, versatile Jerami Grant, and star power of Porter.
But at the center of it all remain Jokic and Murray, Denver’s dynamic duo. I wrote about the two of them after Murray signed his contract extension last offseason, comparing the Jokic and Murray duo to the Shaquille O’Neal and the late Kobe Bryant. That’s what the Nuggets bet on when they signed Murray. What they may not have foreseen was how deep Murray’s connection to Kobe truly ran. The two of them spent time at Bryant’s private camp in the offseason, where Murray learned a great deal from the basketball legend.
That version of Murray is still waiting to be unlocked: the special shots at impossible angles, the hard work and determination, all performed with an infallible confidence in the process. Murray has put in the time to be the best version of himself. It doesn’t surprise me that his best three games have come immediately after sitting out for a significant period. Murray is a reflective, thoughtful guy. He wants to be great. He wants to be the best. Taking a step back and remembering exactly how to actualize that path has certainly helped him along the way. In order to be great though, Murray has to perfect the easy stuff, from making his open jumpers, to freeing himself up with cuts off ball, to dragging defenders away from teammates to make life easier for others.
There will be nights when his shot chart looks like this, taking tough shots due to the situation at hand (and having just six other teammates on a road back to back):
But then, in situations where the matchup is more favorable and he can get to his favorite efficient spots on the court, his shot charts look like this:
So when you think of the Nuggets, you may consider the cutting system behind the brilliance of Nikola Jokic. You may consider the extraordinary amount of athleticism and length they have used to surround Jokic, as well as the advanced skill level of Michael Porter Jr. to make spectacular plays and capitalize on that advantage.
Don’t forget about Murray though. He offers his services as an intense competitor willing to do whatever it takes to get the win for his team every single night. From gutting out injuries to taking the tough shots, Murray may have finally paired those qualities with a willingness to get the easy looks while he still can. With Jokic and Will Barton (and eventually Porter) on the floor to consistently relieve pressure from him, Murray has options to take certain shots versus work for the best look. Over the past three games, Murray has found that harmony between proper aggression and restraint.
And the Nuggets may win a championship because of it.