There have been a lot of firsts in the bubble for the Denver Nuggets, which only makes sense because the bubble is a first in it of itself.
For the first time since 2016-17, the Denver Nuggets offense is humming at a completely different level than the rest of the league. Unfortunately, the Utah Jazz offense withdrew from the NBA because offense was too easy for them during the first four games of this series. Denver is dealing with a tough situation, an offensive shootout the NBA hasn’t seen before that can only be decided with a Game 7.
It’s only fair to the primary stars of this series to have one more tilt in a win-or-go-home setting as well. What Donovan Mitchell and Jamal Murray have brought to the table in this series is patently absurd. Mitchell is averaging 38.6 points per game on 72.7% True Shooting. Murray is averaging 34.8 points per game on 72.8% True Shooting. The only reason Murray’s per game number is lower than Mitchell’s is due to two blowouts that saw him miss out on extended minutes and production. The other four games have been as close as close can be, with each guard wielding a flamethrower instead of a basketball.
At least, that’s the way it looks sometimes.
Let’s be clear, Donovan Mitchell has been extremely good in this series, deserving of all of the praise he has and will collect for such a strong performance. I want to focus mostly on Murray though, so let’s get some Murray-Mitchell combo stats out of the way:
Jamal Murray (50 PTS) and Donovan Mitchell (44 PTS) put on a show once again tonight.— Justin Kubatko (@jkubatko) August 31, 2020
It's the first time in NBA history opposing players have scored at least 40 points in the same game multiple times in the same postseason series.
Murray and Mitchell have elevated each other’s game in ways I have never seen before. I’m 23, so I never had the opportunity to see Magic Johnson and Larry Bird play, let alone play each other. That historical matchup is what this duel reminds me of, and those are two top five players in NBA history. Neither Magic nor Bird were known as flamethrower scorers though, but rather all-around talents who elevated their teams with playmaking just as much as scoring. While Murray and Mitchell are scoring out of their minds, they aren’t high volume playmakers for others in this series. They don’t need to be.
Jamal Murray has joined Michael Jordan (1988), Allen Iverson (2001), and Donovan Mitchell (2020) as the only players in NBA history to record multiple 50-points games in a postseason series.— Justin Kubatko (@jkubatko) August 31, 2020
The sheer volume through which both players are scoring can be mesmerizing at times. Due to the frequency that shots are going in no matter what level of resistance each player sees, it’s easy to forget that we haven’t seen anything like this before. No two players have ever done what Murray and Mitchell are doing in the same series, which makes the bubble even more weird and crazy.
But the streak Murray is on is just unbelievable, perhaps even more so that the Nuggets have faced elimination in the last two games and Murray just won’t let his team lose.
Jamal Murray's last three games:— Justin Kubatko (@jkubatko) August 31, 2020
✅ 50 PTS – 72.6 eFG%
✅ 42 PTS – 73.1 eFG%
✅ 50 PTS – 89.6 eFG%
No other player in NBA postseason history has recorded 40+ PTS with a 70+ eFG% in back-to-back games, let alone three in a row. pic.twitter.com/M7o3aMQPcV
As Justin Kubatko of Stat Muse and creator of Basketball Reference notes above, the high level of scoring and efficiency Murray has achieved is something we have never seen in playoff basketball before.
Here’s how he’s doing it:
Drives to the Rim
Jamal Murray ranks 10th in the NBA among all players with 15.5 drives per game. Getting to the rim and finishing at a high level was one of Murray’s biggest deficiencies in the regular season. He averaged 9.7 drives per game during 2019-20 and scored points on only 48.8% of his drives, according to NBA.com.
In these playoffs, Murray is scoring points on 73.3% of his drives to the rim, which ranks fifth in the NBA among players to accumulate at least 10 drives per game, behind only Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, LeBron James, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. The craziest part of that stat is Murray being 6’4, and the above four probably encapsulate a ranking in some order of the four best players in the game today. All four are physically abusive to the opposition, always possess a size mismatch, and punish smaller defenders consistently.
Jamal Murray is the small one here, and he’s going at Rudy Gobert, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, on many of his drives. It’s insane.
So much of the playoffs is about what taking what the defense offers up and exploiting that weakness every single possession. The Nuggets have done a good job of creating shots in the paint and shots behind the arc for most of this series, but when all else fails, they have two mid-range shooters that can make shots from any spot on the floor. The long mid-range shots from Nikola Jokic haven’t fallen with efficiency, but the same shots from Murray have gone in again and again.
Murray has made 11/16 shots from between 16 and 24 feet this postseason, a shot most defenses are willing to concede as there’s a hand in the face of the offensive player. Murray’s 68.8% from that zone ranks second in the NBA among players to attempt at least 10 shots, behind only Anthony Davis of the Los Angeles Lakers who has been automatic in his own right.
During the regular season, Murray was one of the NBA’s premier mid-range players. He was one of just 13 players to exceed 45.0 FG% on over three mid-range attempts per game. Jokic and Mitchell also showed up here, along with a slew of NBA guards and wings who play their game comfortably in that zone (interestingly, Jokic was the only big on that list).
Murray has upped his mid-range attempts in the playoffs, but not to the same degree as his drives to the rim, nor his next shot.
Pull Up threes
There’s no easy way to lead into this, so I’m just going to flat out say it:
Right now, Jamal Murray is shooting 60.5% on pull up threes in the playoffs.
Yep, that’s a real number. Obviously, nobody has eclipsed that. Mitchell has tried, but Murray’s from another planet right now.
The comfort level with which Murray has going against Utah’s drop scheme is clearly the highest level of comfort Murray has had in his career. It’s not like the Jazz have bad defenders they are throwing at him either. Murray is just expertly maneuvering himself, creating space, and knocking down contested shots at a high clip. It’s unbelievable to watch.
Gobert has always struggled playing on the perimeter against elite three-point shooting guards. Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry have given the Jazz trouble for years, and Murray is learning to attack that matchup in the same way. He doesn’t always use a screen, but when he does, he’s now hunting the three-pointer in ways he’s never fully committed to before these playoffs.
It’s an enormous transformation and one that has elevated Murray from good player to elite player in the span of a month.
Then again, there’s no contesting this move if you’re Donovan Mitchell.
Or this one if you’re Royce O’Neale.
Or this one if you’re Rudy Gobert.
The Jazz are going to throw the kitchen sink at Jamal Murray in Game 7. They may start putting Conley on Murray and O’Neale on Jokic and trap Murray when Jokic comes to set a screen. They may blitz him with Gobert. They may keep playing him the same way and hope he starts to miss.
But right now, very few players in NBA history have hit the zone Murray is currently in. He continuously attacks the defense, bends them to his will, and picks and chooses how he’s going to score on nearly every possession. It’s unbelievable to watch, and Nuggets fans have to be excited for Game 7 because 27 plays for their team.
Jamal Murray is the first player in NBA postseason history to record two 50-point games and one 40-point game in a three-game span. pic.twitter.com/xotV8xLOvB— Justin Kubatko (@jkubatko) August 31, 2020
No matter what happens on Tuesday night, Murray has acquitted himself a star. He has arrived and will take centerstage in a premier matchup on ABC. Jokic may be the best player. Murray may be the best player. It doesn’t really matter at this point. Both players are unbelievable, and having that dynamic duo gives Denver an edge over Utah.