An hour after Jamal Murray roared to life in the fourth quarter to lift the Nuggets to an improbable Game 2 victory, he admitted that it wasn’t close to being his hottest shooting night of the season.
“Boston, Phoenix, Sacramento,” Murray said, talking through a grin that grew wider and wider as one renowned offensive performance after another from the last seven months filtered through his 22-year-old head.
In Murray’s defense, he has a lot of nights to pick from. His 48-point game against the Celtics back in November when he outdueled Kyrie Irving to deliver Denver a crucial early-season victory thrust the third-year point guard into the national spotlight. Then there was Murray’s 46-point eruption in the desert that lifted the Nuggets to a win over the Suns and his memorable 34-point second half against the Kings in early January that willed Denver to another thrilling victory. But Game 2’s hero still wanted a second opinion as to where this latest offensive masterpiece ranked on his junior season’s Mount Rushmore of impressive feats.
“What do you think?” Murray asked, throwing the question at hand back to his father, Roger, as the two walked side by side out of Pepsi Center late Tuesday night following the Nuggets’ 114-105 win over the Spurs.
All the elder Murray could do was smile as his son ran down highlight after highlight from his third NBA season. Can you blame him for being at a loss for words?
Murray just saved the Nuggets’ season.
“Which way is this game gonna go?”
As the Nuggets trudged back to the bench with their heads down in the middle of the third quarter trailing by 16 points, Michael Malone sensed that the game had reached a tipping point. For a second straight night, his team couldn’t throw a rock in the ocean and had trailed by 19 points in the second quarter but battled back only to succumb to another Spurs’ run. The Nuggets shot just 39% from the field and 3-of-11 from 3 in the first half a few days after converting on only six of their 28 3s in a 101-96 Game 1 loss.
“It was a pivotal point in the game,” Malone remembered. “We were down 16 points, and I could see it on some guys’ faces: ‘Which way is this game gonna go?'”
Denver’s coach reminded his team of the Clippers’ Monday night come-from-behind-victory in Golden State when L.A. stormed back from a 31-point deficit to top the Warriors, and that there was still a lot of basketball left to be played.
The Nuggets and Murray took Malone’s message to heart. Denver finished the quarter on an 18-9 run with Murray converting a free-throw late in the period that trimmed the Spurs’ advantage to five points. That one make from the charity stripe took the cover off the basket for the Nuggets point guard, and as the two teams emerged from the stoppage in between the third and fourth quarters, Murray, who had yet to hit a shot from the field, sensed the moment.
“I took a good look around, where I was at, how far I’ve come,” he said. “I just tried to believe in myself. Go out there hit a shot.”
One minute and 14 seconds into the fourth, Murray splashed a 13-foot pull-up jumper over the outstretched arm of Patty Mills that brought the Nuggets to within three points. What followed was an offensive explosion that rivaled Murray’s earlier season scoring triumphs.
Over the final 12 minutes of regulation, Murray scored 21 of the Nuggets’ 39 fourth-quarter points. He shot 8-of-9 from the field in the final period, drawing oohs and ahhs from a boisterous Pepsi Center crowd with every basket. A few minutes after his foul-line jumper, Murray carved into the lane and maneuvered his body around Rudy Gay for a difficult right-handed finish. At the 6:04 mark of the fourth he drilled a 16-foot fadeaway from the right elbow over Derrick White that tied the score at 95 and marked the first time since the opening quarter that Denver had drawn even with San Antonio. Two more difficult and contested jumpers with White close by followed before Murray let go his first dagger of the evening: a fadeaway triple the top of the 3-point arc that barely touched nylon. Murray walked to half-court and fired his first arrow of the night, an initial nail in the Spurs’ Game 2 coffin as the Nuggets expanded their lead to 107-101.
On Denver’s next possession, which came off of a San Antonio turnover, a free-wheeling Murray sunk a pull-up 3 early in the shot clock from right in front of the Spurs’ bench.
“I was hot,” Murray said. “I decided to pull up, and everybody knows I like to take that pull-up, and it went down.”
After a Popovich timeout with the Nuggets leading 110-103 and just under two minutes remaining, Murray ended San Antonio’s night for good with a 21-foot jumper that clinched Game 2 for Denver.
“I always dreamed of playing in a playoff game when it was whited out,” Murray said in reference to the white towels that were waving for the entire fourth quarter. “That’s always been a dream of mine to accomplish that.”
“He needs this”
Murray’s fourth-quarter crusade was even more improbable considering how he played over his last seven quarters. In Saturday’s Game 1, Murray scored 17 points but needed 23 shot attempts to do so and finished without an assist. He struggled again through three quarters Tuesday, scoring only three points on 0-8 shooting, but Denver’s coach stayed with Murray as he’s done all season through thick and thin.
“I was going with him,” Malone said. “He needs this. This is so important for all of our guys, but especially for Jamal. He’s a young player, third year, even though he’s out there struggling, trying to play the right way. I didn’t foresee the fourth quarter he was going to have, but I knew in my heart he needed these minutes.
“He needed to be out there. I needed to show him I believed in him. That’s powerful. If I pull him, ‘Does Coach really believe in me? Does he have my back?’ So I had to stay with him, make or miss, because he’s our guy and I care about him. He came through in a big way, but never once did I think about pulling him from the lineup.”
Murray and Malone enjoy a special player-coach bond because of their open and honest relationship. Malone coaches Murray hard, not as hard as Roger did or Kentucky Coach John Calipari, but Denver’s coach isn’t afraid to get on his young point guard from time to time. It’s his honest and authentic coaching style that caused Murray to reveal midway through last season that he hopes Malone remains his coach for the rest of his career.
The bond between the two remains as strong as ever. After Murray’s 8-of-23 Game 1 clunker, the two watched every one of his shot attempts together. Malone’s message to his point guard throughout their candid film session was that Murray needed to have better shot selection, play with more pace and get back to setting his teammates up instead of only looking for his own offense.
His poor play initially carried over from the Nuggets’ Game 1 loss, but Malone delivered another message to Murray as the fourth quarter began.
“He told me at the end of the third, ‘Just go out there and hoop. He told me that he believes in me, he cares about me, wants to see me succeed. He told me to stick with it. … He always has my back, all season, ever since I’ve been here. Just good to go out there and see him put a smile on his face.”
“It shows us how to play”
Murray’s miracle fourth quarter came with even more meaning because of what Denver was up against. A loss Tuesday and the Nuggets would head to San Antonio down 0-2 in their first-round series, surely looking at an earlier than anticipated beginning to their summer. The scene that unfolded postgame in the Nuggets’ locker room reflected an organizational-wide sigh of relief.
Owners Stan and Josh Kroenke made their way around the Nuggets’ semi-circle of lockers congratulating their players on the win. Malone and president of basketball operations Tim Connelly did the same before the four joined together in the center of the room. Malone wrapped both Kroenke’s in a bear hug as Nikola Jokic finished his postgame media session and tried to put into words what Game 2’s win meant going forward.
“It’s big just to get a win,” Jokic said. “I think we are going to shoot with confidence, we are going to be more relaxed because we have a win. I think it’s just a basketball game, it’s nothing different, it’s nothing harder, it’s just a basketball game.”
Left for dead midway through the third quarter, the Nuggets are right back in the series. Gary Harris, who finished with 23 points on an efficient 10-of-16 shooting, pieced together his fifth-straight standout offensive performance, a welcome sign for the two guard who’s fought through a multitude of injuries this season but seems to be peaking at just the right time. Jokic played a well-rounded Game 2, finishing with 21 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists, two helpers away from his second triple-double in as many postseason games. Paul Millsap steadied the Nuggets on the offensive end of the floor in the first quarter with 11 of Denver’s first 17 points and finished with 20 points and seven rebounds.
The thrilling win provided Denver with a renewed sense of belief heading into Thursday’s Game 3 in San Antonio, a place where the Nuggets have lost 13-straight games.
“It gives us confidence, a little momentum,” Millsap said. “And it shows us how to play. I think down at that six-minute mark in the third quarter on out is how we need to play basketball. And it’s good to see that, especially here. We’ve got to take it on the road.”
The season-saving fourth-quarter could jumpstart Murray’s series as well. He was outplayed by White in Game 1 and Murray’s final 12-minute burst to win Game 2 saved him from winding up on the wrong side of the scorecard opposite the Spurs’ guard, who’s been fantastic in the series, once again.
“Obviously, I wasn’t happy with myself,” Murray said of his Game 1 performance. “Frustrated the way the game went for me. The way I played, I rushed everything. I was excited. I let the amazing energy get to me. I just wanted to go into Game 2 relaxed. And just stick with it. Shots didn’t drop, I wasn’t forcing too much. It didn’t go my way for three quarters. Like I said, everybody had my back, everybody believed in me.”
Murray will always have a believer in Roger, the martial arts junkie and basketball coach who trained his son from an early age and journeyed to the Nuggets’ practice court with Murray following his Game 1 flop. There, the two ran through every shot Murray took Saturday, many of which ended up falling in the fourth quarter of what will go down as a Nuggets playoff performance for the ages.
“It was pretty perfect,” Murray said of his night. “Just the way I imagined it.”