Jamal Murray had an opportunity to tie the score as time expired in Game 2 of the 2023 NBA Finals, but his step-back 3-pointer against Jimmy Butler bounced off the rim.
It was a shot Murray has made on multiple occasions. When he missed, he was more surprised than than disappointed. It shows the level of confidence Murray has in his ability to close games. He felt good about the shot. He didn’t feel good about his lack of intensity throughout the game. “I didn’t play terrible,” he said. “I felt like I could have done a lot more.”
Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone was around Murray for the next two days leading up to the pivotal Game 3 in Miami. He could tell his 26-year-old point guard was itching to redeem himself and was ready for a big bounce-back game.
“I could tell, speaking to him and being around him the last 48 hours, that he was putting a lot of Game 2 on him,” Malone said. “It wasn’t just him. It was me and everyone of our players. It was collective. But that’s what champions do. That’s what warriors do. They battled back. I just felt his presence all game long [in Game 3]. Forget the stats for a second. I felt Jamal Murray’s presence, his energy. He was here. He was in the moment.”
In a game the Nuggets sorely needed to regain home-court advantage in the NBA Finals, Murray and Nikola Jokic authored what Malone called their “greatest performance” as a duo in their seven years together. Jokic and Murray became the first teammates to pull off a 30-10-10 triple-double game in NBA history. Jokic finished with 32 points, 21 rebounds, 10 assists. Not to be outdone, Murray had 34 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists.
“The whole playoffs he was playing phenomenal. He’s a really good leader out there. We’re just following him,” Jokic said of Murray, who might be the best player in the 2023 postseason if not for the 6-11, 280-pound monster he shares a locker room with.
Murray and Jokic have been spectacular. Both are at the peak of their powers and looking more and more like the best 1-2 punch in basketball. The rest of the NBA should be worried because the Murray-Jokic partnership could have a long, dominant run as long as they can stay healthy.
“It’s a great duo. Their games complement each other,” Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Both those guys are elite-level talent.”
Jokic is Denver’s undisputed best player. He’s arguably the best basketball player in the world. If Jokic is the engine of Denver’s Formula 1-type racing machine, then Murray is the fuel that ignites the Denver machine.
“Murray is an electric playoff performer,” Spoelstra said. “Murray will draw second and third defenders. You have to pick him up beyond the 3-point line. And he’s ignitable.”
Murray set the tone early for Game 3 as he took on the Butler defensive challenge and brought the intensity from the tip. He scored 20 of his game-high 34 points in the first half. He shot 12-for-22 from the field, he was 3-for-6 from 3-point range, and 7-for-8 from the line.
The type of energy and aggression Murray brought to the table against the Heat represented what he’d been consistently doing the entire postseason. He was sensational during the Nuggets sweep of the L.A. Lakers in the Western Conference finals.
Jokic was the consistent jab that kept the Lakers at bay. Murray was the right-hand cross that knocked LeBron James and Co. out of the playoffs. Murray’s performances in games 2 and 3 against L.A. were his signature moments. He scored 23 of his game-high 37 points in the fourth quarter of Game 2 to give the Nuggets a 2-0 lead in the series. In Game 3, he dropped another 37-point outing on the road to give the Nuggets a commanding 3-0 series lead.
Murray is one of the game’s fourth-quarter performers. His ability to come through in clutch situations was one of the primary reasons why the Nuggets reached the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.
About the only time Murray’s confidence wavered slightly was during the beginning of his rehabilitation after tearing his ACL in April of 2021. Murray had some doubts about regaining the form he flashed in the bubble season of 2020.
“I remember being in the bus with him, going to the airport after he did the injury [against] Golden State the next day and he had tears in his eyes, and that was the message. ‘Hey man, you’re gonna come back from this. And not only are you going to come back, you’re going to be better,'” said Malone. “In that moment, it’s really hard to believe that. His first thought was, ‘Are you guys gonna trade me? I’m damaged goods, you guys are gonna trade me now.’ “
Malone responded with, “I hugged him and said, ‘Hell no, you’re ours. We love you, we’re going to help you get back, and you’re going to be a better player for it.”
Malone was right. Murray not only fully recovered but he became a better player since the ACL injury. The 2023 playoffs is a reminder of the player the Nuggets selected with the seventh overall pick in the 2016 draft out of Kentucky. The kid from Kitchener, Ontario (Canada), has continued to find ways to improve and show out on the biggest stage in the world.
Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr made some waves when he suggested that Murray is the focal point of the Nuggets’ attack. Seems silly to think that a guard — who has never been named to a single All-Star game or make All-NBA — be the focal point of a team that employs two-time MVP and All-NBA center Nikola Jokic.
But here was Kerr, without hesitation, circling Murray as the top target on the white board.
“I can see [the Heat] in their coaching meeting saying, ‘Murray is the head of the snake, not Jokic,'” Kerr said during Draymond Green’s podcast.
The Nuggets are not just a one-man show. They are a complete team with a scary two-headed monster leading the attack.