“He’s built for the big shots”
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Maybe you didn’t believe it when Jamal Murray reeled off 142 points across three spellbinding games in the first round against Utah.
Or perhaps you weren’t swayed by his 40-piece in Game 7 against the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round that sealed Denver’s second 3-1 comeback in as many rounds.
But if you somehow still didn’t believe that Murray’s growth was real, that his ascension to stardom hadn’t arrived, let Tuesday night’s Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals sink in.
Denver’s emotional heartbeat saved the Nuggets’ season Tuesday night. As Lakers guard Rajon Rondo swiped at each tempting dribble amid the Nuggets’ near fourth-quarter meltdown, Murray was lurking, slowly waiting for his chance to crush them. He wanted to right what he felt was Sunday night’s wrong.
“We feel like we should be up 2-1 right now, to be honest,” said Murray, after dropping 28 points, dishing 12 assists and hauling in eight rebounds in Denver’s 114-106 Game 3 win.
Having already seen a 20-point lead slip to just three in about five minutes, the Nuggets badly needed someone to stop the bleeding. Michael Malone’s timeouts seemed futile. On six straight possessions the Nuggets succumbed to Los Angeles’ pressure and turned the ball over. Denver was perplexed by the Lakers’ switch to a zone.
Few things in basketball feel heavier than a run punctuated by a LeBron James jam. In the fourth quarter, five of James’ six baskets came on layups or dunks. The Nuggets looked helpless as their historic season was slipping away.
But up 103-99 with 2:25 left, Murray probed, spun and pivoted back behind the 3-point line to launch one of his trademark Blue Arrows. When Murray connected, there was almost an exhale from Denver’s bench. The Nuggets had manufactured only seven points in the prior seven-and-half minutes total.
On the next possession down, Murray got hung up in the air twice only to get bailed out by Nuggets veteran Paul Millsap. Murray’s find amid a thicket of arms gave Millsap an easy dunk and the Nuggets a little more breathing room.
And after he’d done the hard work, who could blame Murray for wanting to bask in it a little bit? After he’d launched his final 3-pointer from somewhere near the team hotel, Murray’s shoulders started to sway as he back-pedaled up the court. Tuesday’s was a game that Murray never intended to drop.
“He is built for the big shots,” said partner-in-crime Nikola Jokic. “I really, truly believe that he’s a superstar.”
Murray had his moments during last year’s two series against San Antonio and Portland, but there were several games where he was inefficient, or less than the all-encompassing impact player he’s become.
Now he’s soaring for rebounds against Los Angeles’ trees, barking out defensive assignments or setting up his teammates for open looks.
“He came to me last year, kind of after the Playoffs, he says, ‘Coach, you know what drives me crazy and I hate? You say I’m inconsistent,’” Malone recalled. “’What bothers me is that you’re right. I know I have to be more consistent.’”
In his last 10 games, dating back to the beginning of the Clippers’ series, Murray’s averaging 23.2 points on 46% shooting, including 43% on 3-pointers. He’s also serving 6.6 assists per game, more than even Jokic’s 6.2. As the command of his game has soared, so has his unselfishness.
“I think what I’ve seen from Jamal this year, aside from the growth defensively, which has been tremendous, I’m so proud of him in that regard, but now I know every night what I’m getting from Jamal,” Malone said. “Last year it was, we knew what we were getting from Nikola. What kind of game would Jamal have? That’s no longer the case. We have two superstars in Nikola and Jamal and a lot of other really good, young, talented players behind them.”
That confidence, which erupted against the Jazz, maintained vs. the Clippers, and is now bubbling again against the Lakers, is a scary sight for L.A. With a new lease on this series, there’s no telling the heights Murray’s game will go.