Jamal Murray rewards Denver Nuggets’ faith with impressive Game 1 performance

by Alex Labidou
Nuggets.com Staff Writer
@LabidouA

If every significant moment has an origin, Jamal Murray’s coming of age in Game 1 against Utah came on May 12, 2019. 
 
Visibly exhausted in Game 7 of an excruciating Western Conference semifinal against the Trail Blazers, the Nuggets’ lead guard finish 4 of 18 from the field as his team’s playoff run came to an end. Murray was visibly upset with his performance after the game, but less than 24 hours later, pride came into play. He was defiant and motivated. 
 
“We could’ve won yesterday,” Murray said matter-of-factly at the Nuggets’ final media session of that season. “We would have been in the Western Conference finals. We would’ve been a top-four team and a contender…We lost [Game 7] by four.”
 
He added, “I think we’re contenders right now.”
 
Just over a month and a half later, the Nuggets would sign Murray to a maximum extension the moment the organization was allowed to do so. It was a move that was met with mixed reactions on social media from NBA pundits and fans with the prevailing question being: Is he worth it? To put things in perspective, there were players selected in the first round of the 2019 draft who are older than Murray. 
 
For Nuggets President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly and the rest of the front office, however, they saw a then-22-year-old with the physical tools to develop into a star and the internal desire to be among the NBA’s elite. Yes, it was a gamble, but one that a team with championship aspirations needed to take. 
 
“Part of the appeal of Jamal, even from the draft process, was his mental toughness and his willingness to embrace responsibility,” Connelly told Nuggets.com in December, reflecting on that decision.

Since then, there has been a concerted effort by Murray to not only embrace being a leader but to also show it on the court. 
 
When his offensive game struggled at the start of the 2019-20 season, he stepped up on the other end of the floor and was one of the Nuggets’ better defenders during the first three months of the season. After he suffered an ankle injury in January against the Hornets, he spent the time away from the game assessing where he needed to improve offensively. He made immediate improvements. Murray went from averaging 17.6 points a game on 43.5 percent shooting prior to the injury to averaging 21.9 points a game on 50.4 percent shooting after it. He also bettered his 3-point shooting, connecting on 39 percent after previously hitting at a 32.2 clip. 
 
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the NBA to suspend the season for almost four months, Murray saw it as an opportunity to make gains physically. He added 14 pounds of muscle, going from 201 to 215, in an effort to become a more effective rebounder and avoid being bodied by opposing defenses. 
 
“Adding 14 pounds of muscle allows me to do a lot more on the court on both ends,” Murray explained in a recent media session. “I know that [in the] midrange and getting in there with bodies is a big part of my game. So, I just feel like I’m moving better than I have and I’m stronger, faster even coming off the hamstring injury.”
 
Since his bubble debut on Aug. 8, Murray has seen his rebound percentage go up from 6.7 percent prior to the hiatus to 11.5 percent during the seeding games. All of these factors showcase his intrinsic motivation to continue to add facets to his game. It is something that isn’t dissimilar to drive and hunger shown by a player who Murray worked out with last summer—the late Kobe Bryant.
 
Monday afternoon was a culmination of all of that progress. 
 
After an uneven opening three quarters against the Jazz, Murray took his game to another level with the game hanging in the balance. With the Nuggets trailing by four late in the fourth quarter, he drove toward the free-throw line and saw he was double-teamed by Joe Ingles and Rudy Gobert. He quickly reacted and found Nikola Jokić wide open for a three. Less than a minute later, the 23-year-old found the Nuggets’ all-world big again on a dime, a perfectly executed bounce pass between two defenders for the score, that would make the old-school Mark Jackson proud.. He would then proceed to score five of his own to give Denver a 113-111 edge. When the Jazz forced overtime, Murray refused to let up. 
 
He would be the catalyst to the Nuggets outscoring their counterparts 20-10 in the quarter, scoring 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting and dishing out two assists. Murray finished the game, scoring 20 of his 36 points in the fourth quarter and overtime and assisted on nine buckets with just three turnovers in 41 minutes of action. While it’d be excessive to point to one game as proof Murray’s worth the investment, it does illustrate why the Nuggets believe he can be a star. 
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“It was the Jamal Murray show,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said, following the game. “He was phenomenal.” 

He added, "I thought in that fourth quarter and overtime, when the game was in the balance, Jamal was ready to step up and take the game over. You have to love that from such a young player and a huge part of our future."

Murray showed up to the postgame Zoom conference call draped in a Muhammad Ali shirt. When asked about going toe-to-toe with Donovan Mitchell, who finished with 57 points, he grinned and tugged the shirt. 
 
“I’m smiling because those are the games you want to be in. Those are the games that are the most fun and most competitive.” Murray said. “Those are the fights, the competitive spirit that you want to have going into those games.” 
 
He added, “When guys get competitive and get under each other’s skin, it brings you out more. Some people fold.” 
 
To paraphrase the greatest of all time, Murray’s not bragging if he can back it up. Monday, he sure did.

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