Growing up, Jamal Murray would dream of making clutch plays on basketball’s biggest stage. Many kids do this, imagining themselves hitting big shots with the game or season on the line.
But unlike most kids, Murray gets to turn his fantasy into reality. And just as he envisioned it, he's playing his best basketball in the postseason and consistently putting the Denver Nuggets on his back when the team needs him most.
In Denver's Game 2 win over the Los Angeles Lakers, Murray finished with 37 points, 10 rebounds, 6 threes, 5 assists and 4 steals. But it was his fourth-quarter contributions that stood out. In the final period, Murray erupted for 23 points and drained four threes, while shooting 86% from the field, 80% from deep and 87.5% from the free-throw line.
“When I was little, I used to count down the seconds off the shot clock and make the shot and talk like Marv Albert and talk like Mike Breen, just the imagination running [wild] as a kid. When you get in that moment and you see your fam in the crowd, see your little brother, see Mike Breen there, all these little reminders, they all pay dividends and make that moment a little more special, and just kind of lock you back in. You don't want to miss that opportunity…
“Playing in the Western Conference Finals against the Lakers and LeBron James, it's an amazing opportunity, and it's something you're going to look back [on] in history and remember for the rest of your life. I just tried to make the most of it, and it's fun when you've got it going like that in the fourth.”
To say that Murray "got it going in the fourth" would be a massive understatement. Murray put together one of the most dominant fourth-quarter performances in recent NBA history.
Throughout Murray’s playoff career, he’s dropped 20+ points in the fourth quarter on four different occasions, which is the most of any NBA player over the last 25 years. The only other players with multiple 20-point playoff fourth quarters over that span are Michael Jordan (two) and Allen Iverson (two).
What makes Murray’s play down the stretch even crazier is the fact that he was having a relatively quiet game through the first three quarters, with only 14 points on 5-of-17 shooting from the field.
Then, he caught fire and couldn’t miss.
“He's had a few games like that this year where he struggles in the first half and then just goes crazy in the second half,” Nuggets wing Michael Porter Jr. said. “I think that just takes maturity as a player. And I feel like all the best players in the league do that, because it only takes a couple shots going in to get a rhythm. He knows we need him to make shots down the stretch to win games, so I was proud of him for sticking with it.”
“He was special. He won us the game,” Nuggets center Nikola Jokic added. “I think he was amazing. Yes, maybe in the first half he struggled to make shots, but when it mattered the most, he made shots and he won us the game basically.”
Murray explained his mindset entering the fourth quarter.
“For those who have seen me play before, after a shooting half like that, I normally like to reset, come back down, reset my mind, quick little meditation in my head and just come back out focused,” Murray said. “I missed my first couple coming out and had some really good looks. The game would've been a lot easier if I made them the first half. Just come out focused and knock them down, don't lose any confidence or anything like that. Just play my game and know they're going to fall if I keep shooting them… Once you see a couple go in, it can get it rolling. I was able to just find a little separation and just rise up over the top and make some shots.
“Sometimes I need to settle the hell down, and sometimes I need to rile myself up. It just depends on what's needed in the game. Tonight, I just had to just reset completely. The first half, the second-half three that I had, the wide-open one, I alligator-armed it. It shows me that I'm overthinking it, and there's no reason for me to overthink an open shot. Once I missed that one and I came up short in the mid-range, [I knew] I've got to settle down even more. I'm overthinking about the shot too much. It's all mental practice. I've been having bad halves and crazy second halves the rest of my life. I know how to change it, I know what to adjust. I want to put together a good four quarters.”
Nuggets head coach Michael Malone pointed out that it doesn’t take much for Murray to get hot.
“We all know one thing about Jamal, man: he just has to see one go in,” Malone said. “He got a little mid-range pull-up to go in and kind of looked up to the heavens. That's all he needs, and after that, he's shooting into a hula hoop.”
Murray agreed with this sentiment, and explained why he’s able to catch fire so quickly.
“It just becomes a practice shot, whatever shot you take. I practice all the shots that you see me make and take,” he explained. “You could be shooting in a spot in practice and you miss four or five, six in a row, and then all of a sudden, you just lock in and you take a step back, you reset, you refocus and you go back and make 10 in a row like it's nothing. It's just about resetting your mind. It's all mental, in my opinion. I was able to do that again tonight.”
LeBron James didn’t have any issues with how the Lakers defended Murray in the fourth quarter. Instead, he gave the 26-year-old credit for hitting some difficult shots.
“He made shots. He made shots at the end of the clock when we guarded for 24 seconds, and he made two big-time shots, one over AD and one over myself,” James said. “[He] had his mid-range game going. But he had his three-point shot going in the fourth. It's no surprise to anybody, he's done it before. Hate to be on the other side of it.
“But I don't feel like we had many breakdowns when he was doing what he was doing. He made shots, and sometimes it's a make-or-miss league. I feel like defensively, we were really good. They shot 43% [which we’ll take] for the No. 1 offense in the league, and so it just sucks that those five threes in the fourth definitely killed us.”
This postseason, Murray is averaging 27.2 points, 6.2 assists, 5.5 rebounds, 3.2 threes and 1.6 steals per game on efficient 47.1/40.8/.91.7 shooting splits.
Murray missed the entirety of the 2021-22 season due to a torn ACL, and he had to watch from the sidelines as the Nuggets lost to the Golden State Warriors in the first round of last year's playoffs. He would ultimately be sidelined for 18 months, and Coach Malone is proud of how Murray battled adversity and came back better than ever.
“It's so rewarding. This is not just coach-and-player [relationship]. I love Jamal Murray. This is not just like I'm coaching him,” Malone explained. “We've been together seven years and been through a lot of ups and downs, and to see him back playing at the level he's playing at, the first thought for me is just tremendous pride and just so happy for him. Because I saw the dark days coming back from that ACL. For him to be here playing at the level that he's playing at is just... I'm just so happy for the young man. He needs to continue to do that. Obviously, our goal is not done. We have to win this series. Our goal is to win a championship, and he's going to be a big part of that.”
The Nuggets are now two wins away from making their first NBA Finals appearance in franchise history. While much of the conversation about this series has centered around the Lakers, Murray and his teammates aren’t surprised.
“The outside noise is the outside noise. We're the Denver Nuggets; we're used to that,” Murray said. “Even when we win, they talk about the other team… Same old, same old. It fuels us a little more and will be sweeter when we win the chip.”