Every team needs a ceiling-raiser.
Superstars like Nikola Jokic raise the floor of a team. As Jokic improved, so did the Denver Nuggets. They started out as playoff contenders and have become the best team in the West.
But come playoff time, teams need to find that extra gear to push them to new heights. For the Nuggets that additional oomph in the postseason has been Jamal Murray. What he’s doing in this year’s playoffs is no surprise. He’s done it before. In the 2020 NBA Bubble, Murray showed just how far the Nuggets can go when he raises his game.
Widely regarded as a support player, Murray burst onto the scene in the 2020 playoffs. He took the reins of Jokic’s team and pushed them to a deep playoff run behind some ridiculous performances. Who could forget his first round duel with Donovan Mitchell where he had two 50-point games? What about his 40-point closeout performance against the LA Clippers in the second round? Murray also led the way in his team’s lone win in the West Finals with a 28-point, 12-assist show. In 19 bubble games, he averaged 26.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 6.6 assists, far from his 18-5-5 line in the regular season.
Just as he was raising his game, Murray was struck down. A torn ACL kept him out of the 2021-2022 season.
This season, Murray started out slow as he was being eased back into game shape after missing an entire season. He had solid stretches in the regular season but nothing mind-blowing like his bubble show three years ago.
That’s because he was probably saving his best performances for the playoffs.
Murray opened this year’s postseason with a solid if not unspectacular game. He struggled from the field, hitting only 40 percent of his shots, still notching 24 points in the process. But he helped his team get the easy W by doing a lot of everything else. He grabbed eight rebounds and eight assists to finish with a well-rounded line.
His playmaking was huge for the Nuggets. With the Minnesota Timberwolves crowding Nikola Jokic, Murray had the space to operate, finding cutters and shooters. He led the way for Denver when they pulled away from Minny in the middle quarters of Game 1.
Game 2 was a tale of two halves for the Nuggets. In the first half, it seemed as if they would once again get an easy win. In the second half, the Timberwolves fought back hard and turned the potential blowout into a tight contest.
In both halves, Murray was there to leave his mark. He led the way in the first half with timely hits and dimes to help the Nuggets build a big lead. When the Timberwolves fought back, it was Murray who kept the Nuggets ahead, and eventually shut the door on their pesky opponents.
Murray scored 40 points on 59 percent shooting, hitting six triples in the process. That performance was a throwback to 2020 where 40 was an easy mark for Murray to hit.
He’s given the Nuggets a totally different look in the first two games of this series.
Denver is usually reliant on Jokic to create opportunities for them on offense. With two big men that can give him different looks, the Joker’s had trouble being the hub of the Nuggets’ offense.
Murray has shown in Game 1 the ability to create for the rest of the team just like Jokic. He led the team in assists to open the series. In Game 2, they needed Murray to get buckets to offset the barrage by Anthony Edwards. He did that too.
Murray doesn’t need Jokic to get his points. He can easily get to his spots on the floor with his smooth handle and shifty footwork. He’s automatic from the midrange and can pull up or step back smoothly into his jumper. In the perimeter, he just needs to be freed by a screen to hit big bombs from beyond the arc.
Teams might have forgotten how good Murray is, given his two-year layoff from postseason play. Well, it only took him two games to remind everyone that while the Joker is the team’s MVP, the Nuggets are on a whole different level when the Blue Arrow is in Bubble Mode.