If you’re not familiar with Film Fridays, each Friday, I’ll be looking at some recent Denver Nuggets’ games, lineups or something else from a film aspect to try and bring you a piece of content that you’re not getting somewhere else. Feel free to give any feedback positive or negative in the comments or find me on Twitter.
641 days ago, the Nuggets were riding high. They had won eight of their last nine games with seven of those eight wins coming with the recently acquired Aaron Gordon in the lineup. They had a late-night matchup with the Golden State Warriors with star point guard Jamal Murray returning to the lineup after missing the prior four games with knee soreness. By the end of the night, the team’s trajectory would dramatically shift for the next 18 months.
It would be announced the next morning that Murray had torn his ACL and would miss the remainder of the season, along with a good chunk of the following year. Following Murray’s injury, the team’s guard rotation sustained injury after injury heading into the playoffs to the point they were starting Austin Rivers and Facundo Campazzo and relying on guys like Shaquille Harrison and Markus Howard for regular minutes on most nights. Their season ended in a 4-0 sweep against the Phoenix Suns.
Murray wasn’t ready to return last year, and he ultimately sat out the entire season while rehabbing his injury. The team was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the eventual champion Golden State Warriors where they were just clearly outclassed in the guard department. Now, halfway through the season, the Nuggets find themselves atop the Western Conference, and, in addition to strong play from others around the roster, the former rising star guard is steadily finding his footing to make an already strong team even stronger.
In the month of January, through five games, Murray is shooting 50.6 percent from the field and 51.9 percent from 3-point range. In 29 games between October and December, he was 43.8 percent from the field and 35.8 percent from 3-point range. During the 2020-21 season, prior to his injury, he was shooting 47.7 percent from the floor and 40.8 percent from 3-point range. It’s a small sample size to base things on just a few games this month, but he’s clearly in a better spot than he was the last three months.
One of the biggest areas that he’s looked more confident has been when shooting from the perimeter. Opponents aren’t playing him any differently this month than they had been, but he just looks more comfortable outside than he had previously. Take a look at the play above. Murray has Mikal Bridges guarding him out beyond the 3-point line. At 6’6” with a 7’1” wingspan, Bridges has some length on Murray, and he also has the lateral quickness to stick with him side to side. Murray uses a screen from Zeke Nnaji to gain a little separation, and he looks like he’s about to drive towards the basket against Bismack Biyombo. Instead, he hesitates to get Bridges to overcorrect before drilling the stepback triple over his outstretched hand.
Most people would watch this play and think Murray’s matched up with a center out on the perimeter, so he should automatically just score. This isn’t just any center. Bam Adebayo, of the Miami Heat, was the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year prior to sustaining injuries that derailed the end of his campaign last season. The situation also elevates how big this shot was. Less than two minutes are on the clock, with the Nuggets trailing by two at home against a desperate Heat team. If Murray hesitates at all, this shot is getting blocked. He sets up and is just waiting for the feed back from Nikola Jokic. He catches the ball, and he rises up without even thinking about it to knock down the shot to take a lead that the team would not relinquish to close out the game.
Burst & Body Control
Murray has never been the NBA’s fastest guard. Instead, he’s often relied on superior body control when driving to the rim. We had seen that in spurts earlier in the season, but we’ve seen it more and more as of late. On this play against the Los Angeles Lakers, Murray catches the ball at the top of the key. He gets Kendrick Nunn switched onto him, and he just starts slicing up the defense. He gets by Nunn with ease, and he almost looks like he’s moving in slow motion while still moving faster than everyone else on the court. He rises up and flips in the left-handed layup while falling to the ground.
Again, it doesn’t take much for Murray to get an advantage that he can exploit. Jokic gives him just a slight screen to give him a bit of separation, and it’s almost as if you can already put the two points on the board from there. Adebayo and Jimmy Butler are both between Murray and the rim. Those two guys have combined for eight All-Defense selections in 16 full seasons, with Bam making it each of the last three seasons. Murray gives enough of a pass fake to make Bam shade out towards Jokic, and Butler never gets the chance to slide over and cut off the driving lane. Murray floats through the lane for the layup, and he makes it look effortless.
Arguably the best area of Murray’s game prior to his injury was his work in the mid-range. During his injury-shortened 2020-21 season, he shot 49.6 percent from 10 to 16 feet on 115 attempts. This is the area where his talents in one-on-one matchups really shine, and, when you get a defender to just shake his head in defeat, you know you did something right. On this play, Murray gets Dario Saric switched onto him, and Saric is in trouble from the jump. Murray is driving to his left with Saric hustling to stay in front of him. Murray drives and stepbacks to nail the jumper with Dario reaching out to contest the shot. He turns around to see it fall, and he just shakes his head in disgust. He guarded him about as good as he could have hoped for, and it simply did not matter.
Explain to me what in the world Raul Neto is supposed to do differently on this play. Even after getting screened by Nnaji, he recovers and is still close to Murray. He’s staying with him through all of the dribble moves that Jamal is throwing at him and playing spectacular defense. Then, Murray hits him with a half spin before spinning back to his previous spot, and Neto is just gone. He slid once too far to cut off the spin, and he can’t recover in time to stop Murray from hitting the long mid-range jumper. Since a 3-game losing streak at the beginning of December, the Nuggets are 14-3 with all three of those losses coming on the road and two of them on the second night of a back-to-back. This Nuggets’ team has been firing strong as of late, and the resurgence of Murray is only going to continue their push towards greatness this season.
For those of you that are still here, remember to leave your feedback in the comments or over on my Twitter, and have a fantastic film-filled Friday.