Nikola Jokić won the Western Conference Finals MVP after the Denver Nuggets took down the Los Angeles Lakers in four games. And deservedly so.
The Joker averaged a triple-double for the second-straight playoff series and became the first player to put up 25+ points, 10+ assists, and 10+ rebounds per game in the Conference Finals. He carried the Nuggets home in Game 4 with 15 fourth quarter points to pull off Denver's first-ever playoff sweep.
His running mate, Jamal Murray, had just as compelling of an MVP case. Now, the beauty of the Nuggets is that individual accolades don't matter to this team; Michael Malone's group has one goal in mind, an NBA championship. Something as silly as a Western Conference Finals MVP could never pull this tight-knit squad apart at the seams.
Murray became the first player to average 30+ points on 50/40/90 shooting splits in the Conference Finals. He's the second player ever to put these stats up in any playoff series.
And while Jokić may have carried the Nuggets across the finish line in Game 4, it was Murray who put up a herculean performance when the series was held in the balance during Games 2 and 3.
The Nuggets took Game 1 of the Conference Finals at home, but the story of the game was whether Los Angeles had solved Denver's offense by shrinking a 20-point lead down to just 3 points. Los Angeles altered its defensive assignments by moving Anthony Davis away from Jokić and instead having him lurk nearby with Rui Hachimura taking on the primary matchup. The adjustment worked, and Jokić scored just 5 total points in the fourth quarter of Game 1.
Game 2 only intensified the feeling that Los Angeles had figured Denver out. The Lakers led through three quarters of play. But then, like destiny itself, fourth quarter Murray arrived and completely broke the game open.
Murray dropped 23 points in the fourth quarter alone after struggling mightily for most of the game. This was Murray's fourth time dropping 20+ points in a playoff fourth quarter, by far the most for any player in NBA history.
Murray did it on a variety of shots: double-clutch leaners, pull-up three-pointers going to his right, stepback shots over Anthony Davis, midrange shots after posting up. The Nuggets exited Denver with a 2-0 lead thanks to Murray's magic on the mainstage. The series had swung in Denver's favor.
Game 3 required Denver to enter the hostile environment of the Crypto.com arena, where the Lakers had not lost a game all postseason. Not to mention, Denver had won the first two games of the Western Conference Finals by just 11 combined points. Taking one on the road was not going to be easy.
Once again, it was Murray who put on a show for the Nuggets. He carried over his insane Game 1 fourth quarter rhythm and put up 17 points on 8-of-10 shooting in the first quarter of Game 2 to give the Nuggets the initial 32-20 lead. He then tacked on 13 additional points in the second quarter to reach 30 points before halftime on just 7 missed shots.
Murray's ridiculous first half performance gave the Nuggets enough juice to cruise across the finish line and take a 3-0 series lead. No team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit in NBA playoff history, and Denver handed Los Angeles its first playoff sweep since 2013.
Murray scored 53 combined points between the fourth quarter of Game 2 and the first half of Game 3, the most over a three-quarter span in the last 25 postseasons. He was essentially Denver's ace pitcher and its lights-out mid-inning reliever. Without his dominant showing, there's a good chance that Los Angeles could have tied or even taken a lead in the series.
Murray's journey to prosperity in the 2023 postseason was far from a guarantee. In fact, there were points where he was worried he was going to be traded from the Nuggets.
He famously made a name for himself in the NBA Bubble and averaged a ridiculous 26.7 points per game on 50.5 percent shooting from the field, 45.3 percent from three-point range, and nearly 90 percent from the line. At just 22 years old, he was on the fast track to becoming one of the best young stars in the league.
Then, the injury happened.
In a game against the Golden State Warriors in April 2021, Murray crumpled to the floor after a drive to the rim in the fourth quarter. He would have to be carted off in a wheelchair after being unable to stand on his own.
Murray would later be diagnosed with an ACL tear in his left knee, thereby ending his season and the Nuggets' 2021 title hopes. The injury was severe enough to keep Murray sidelined for the 2021-22 regular season and postseason. It took 539 days for Murray to get back on the court.
Michael Malone shared with the media that Murray, at one point, feared he would be traded due to the injury, referring to himself as "damaged goods." His story about the entire interaction with his star point guard was touching.
"I remember being in the bus with him going to the airport after he did the injury in Golden State the next day and he had tears in his eyes. And that was the message, 'Hey, man, you're going to come back from this and not only are you going to come back, you're going to be better," said Malone. "And in that moment, it's really hard to believe that. His first thought was, 'Are you guys gonna trade me?' And that was his, 'I'm damaged goods, are you guys gonna trade me now?' And I hugged him and I said, 'Hell no. You're ours. We love you. We're gonna help you get back. You're gonna be a better player for it.'"
In the time that Murray was sidelined, he watched many of his peers jump past him in the NBA's ranks. Donovan Mitchell, who Murray vanquished in the NBA Bubble, made an All-NBA team this season. Oklahoma City Thunder guard, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, finished fifth in MVP voting. Even someone like De'Aaron Fox made his first All-Star team as a member of the Sacramento Kings.
Murray, meanwhile, has yet to make an All-Star appearance. His national recognition before this postseason was next-to-none. Many assumed his performance in the Bubble was a fluke.
Boy, has he ever proved doubters wrong.
Murray is averaging 27.7 points in the 2023 postseason on 48 percent from the field, nearly 40 percent three, and 92.5 percent from the charity stripe—numbers that are frighteningly similar to what he did in the Orlando Bubble. He's also dished out an average of 6.1 assists and grabbed a career-high 5.5 rebounds per contest.
Only ten players in NBA history have averaged at least 27 points in the postseason on 48/39/90 shooting splits. It's been a remarkable comeback.
"It was beautiful to watch seeing the road that Jamal has been on these last couple of years. Getting healthy, getting back to form of what he was in the bubble or even before that. It's beautiful to watch," said Jeff Green. "Watching it now and seeing the hard work that he's put in being here last year, I'm happy for him. I'm very, very happy for him. And he's just proven that he's one of the best guards in this league."
After Denver closed out the Lakers in Game 4 of the Conference Finals, Jokić said he was the happiest for Murray, given his taxing road to recovery.
"He was injured. He was getting through a tough period. He thought they were gonna trade him," Jokić said. "The way how he is leading us, how he is controlling the game and making shots. He's playing really well. I'm so happy for Jamal just to prove that he's worked and that he's a special player in this league."
Michael Porter Jr. shared with reporters earlier in the 2023 postseason that he thought Murray was and still is better than ever, touting him for his improvements as a floor general.
“I told him the other day, I feel like he’s better now than before his injury,” Porter Jr. said. “I know he probably doesn’t feel it, but just his all-around game, his awareness. He had a year off where he just had to watch. So I just feel like his awareness and just the right plays he’s making — the assists, being able to play a true point guard for our team, and knowing the guys around him and how to get them open.”
Murray has generally shied away from the comparisons between his current self and the player we saw in the NBA Bubble. He did mention during the Conference Finals that the game has slowed down for him and that the time off helped him conceptualize basketball with better clarity while on the sidelines.
"I got to see the game a little slower, I think. I'm not as rushed, I'd probably say. I take my time a little more, even just a couple more doubles just to not turn it over or put somebody else in a bad spot if I pass it," Murray said after Game 3. "So I'd just say slowing the game down and also getting to watch the game from afar for a season and two postseasons."
Like the rest of his squad, Murray will have the chance to add to his legend in the NBA Finals. He has the opportunity to claim his spot as one of the best young guards on the national stage should Denver finish the job.