Jamal MurrayBart Young/NBAE via Getty Images
DENVER — Jamal Murray was 5-of-17 through the first three quarters of Thursday’s 108-103 win over the Los Angeles Lakers. His Denver Nuggets trailed throughout the second and third quarters. With just under four minutes left in the third, L.A.’s win probability peaked at 83.6 percent.
Then, as Murray told reporters after the game, he “reset” and meditated before giving Nuggets fans what’s come to be known as a “Murray Flurry” around Denver.
On more than one occasion, the Jumbotron flashed those words during an electrifying 23-point fourth quarter.
In the final frame alone, he went 4-of-5 from deep, drilling jumpers with hands in his face, falling away, stepping back. Few players in the league can find a zone like Murray’s.
“It’s all mental, in my opinion,” Murray said.
It was the fourth 20-point fourth quarter in the playoffs in Murray’s career. That’s the most in the NBA since 1996-97.
“He just has to see one go in,” head coach Michael Malone said after the game. “That’s all he needs. And after that, he’s shooting into a hula hoop.”
Murray understandably drew plenty of attention in the NBA’s 2020 bubble, when he closed out the Utah Jazz in the first round with 50, 42 and 50 in Games 5, 6 and 7, respectively. But missing a year and a half with a torn ACL took him off the NBA world’s radar.
Over the course of two Murray-less Nuggets playoff runs, the narrative somehow became two-time MVP Nikola Jokić not doing enough (despite his averages of 30.2 points, 12.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists in those two postseasons). Now, during this re-introduction of Murray and the fully healthy supporting cast around the big man, we’re finally seeing this team’s real ceiling.
“One man can’t win a championship,” Malone said. “Nikola has help. The biggest key is that we’re healthy this year.”
After putting up his seventh triple-double of the postseason, Jokić is averaging a seemingly impossible 30.4 points, 13.8 rebounds and 10.2 assists while shooting 54.9 percent from the field and 47.8 percent from three.
But Malone is right. Jokić is not alone.
After Thursday’s explosion, Murray is up to 27.2 points and 6.2 assists while shooting 47.1 percent from the field and 40.8 percent from three.
Michael Porter Jr., who hit two crucial threes in a fourth quarter run that flipped the game and pushed a Nuggets lead to 12, has hit 42.2 percent of his attempts from deep.
Aaron Gordon has been tasked with wide-ranging defensive responsibilities that have included guarding Karl-Anthony Towns, Kevin Durant and LeBron James.
Bruce Brown has been a consistent source of energy and competitiveness off the bench.
“His defense. His energy. He’s doing that the whole year,” Jokić said after the game. “He’s always into it. He can pick up the guys.”
And Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has provided plenty of perimeter defense while shooting 39.0 percent from three.
This is a complete team. There’s a reason it’s the top seed in the conference (and was for the majority of the regular season).
But even with the best record in the West and a two-time MVP on the roster, much of the media is seemingly just now waking up to Denver’s existence. Others, even after Game 1, continued to insist L.A. was fine.
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“The national narrative [after Game 1] was, ‘Hey, the Lakers are fine,’” Malone said. “… No one talked about Nikola just had a historic performance. … The narrative wasn’t about the Nuggets. The narrative wasn’t about Nikola. … You put that in your pipe, you smoke it. And you come back, and you know what, we’re gonna go up 2-0.”
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Mike Malone sounds off on the playoff narratives 🗣️ pic.twitter.com/TllcG3Ik9x
And that’s exactly what Denver did.
Now, up 2-0, the Nuggets are headed to Los Angeles. They were in the conference finals in 2020, but that was in the bubble. This will be this group’s first real conference finals road test. And during the regular season, they went an underwhelming 19-22 away from Ball Arena.
Don’t be surprised if the talking point between now and Game 3 is the classic, “The series doesn’t start till someone wins on the road.”
And don’t be surprised if Denver rises to the occasion again. Some may not have much experience with this team, but it’s quietly built a championship-caliber roster and culture over the last several years.
“We’re the outsiders,” Murray said. “We’re used to that. When we win, they talk about the other team. Same old, same old.”
If the Nuggets can secure six more wins, we’ll have no option but to talk about them.
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