Pretend you’re grading two of Jamal Murray’s toughest postseason buckets like this is the Dunk Contest. One through 10 scale. Please hold up the appropriate number after each clip.
They’re probably both 10s right? It’s hard to ding these bottle rockets that touched only nylon on the way down.
If you’re factoring in stakes, you’d give the edge to the first shot, which came in the final minute of Game 7 against the Spurs. Murray’s floater from the left elbow over LaMarcus Aldridge’s outstretched arm clinched Denver’s first playoff series win in a decade.
But in a vacuum? No context provided? It’s the second shot, a falling-out-of-bounds, double-clutch, over-the-backboard tear drop that got Denver on the board in Game 4 in Portland. Roger Murray himself couldn’t have dreamed up a way to make that shot more difficult.
“I practice a lot of tough shots, a lot of off balance shots,” Murray said. “A lot of practice. I’ve been my doing them my whole life, and my dad has had a big impact with that.”
The unusual training methods Roger put his son through are well documented by now. Push ups in the snow. Dribbling drills on sheets of ice. Deep squats with a cup of hot tea balanced on a thigh to provide extra motivation to stay steady. All of that helped Murray develop a knack for getting off balance, contested shots to go down.
When he gets in a rhythm, he can fire from anywhere on the court at any angle and convert. He went to such a place in the second quarter of Game 5 Tuesday. Watch this nine-point flurry:
First, Murray duped Al-Farouq Aminu with one of his pet moves: the up-and-under into a scoop shot. Next, he danced his way to the rim and banked in a wrong-footed lefty layup with 6-foot-11 Enes Kanter in his way. Third, Murray whipped out a Eurostep in transition and hung, hung, hung long enough to flip in a righty reverse. Finally, he drilled a 3 in Damian Lillard’s grill despite never getting his feet set. All of this occurred in a three-minute, two-second span.
“Jamal actually makes more tough shots than normal shots,” Torrey Craig said. “He’s a tough shotmaker. Him and Joker (Nikola Jokic). I say he’s up there. He’s pretty elite at making tough shots.”
In the playoffs, Murray has actually shot the ball better when he’s being blanketed than when he’s gotten breathing room.
He is 38 of 80 from the field (47.5%) on what the NBA considers “very tight” or “tight” shots compared to 56 of 131 (42.7%) on “open” or “wide-open” shots. He has rebounded from a rough postseason start against San Antonio and looked every bit like the elite three-level scorer Denver was hoping for when it nabbed him seventh overall in 2016.
“He’s definitely up there,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said while running through his mental catalogue of tough shotmakers. “You always think about Steph and Kyrie as great finishers. Below the rim finishers if you will. I think what Jamal has is he can finish all different types of shots. But he also has the athleticism to finish above the rim.”
Murray doesn’t have Curry’s shooting stroke or quick trigger, and he’s not nearly as shifty as Irving, but it’s easy to understand why Malone groups them together. Malone is also correct in pointing out that neither championship-winning guard is capable of this:
The 6-foot-4 Murray threw down 25 dunks during the regular season, only seven fewer than Russell Westbrook, who attacks the rim like it personally wronged him. Murray doesn’t blow by defenders easily, but he’s explosive when he gets a runway.
The dunk above (and ensuing grimace) came in the third quarter of Game 4 in San Antonio, the turning point of Denver’s postseason. San Antonio took a two games to one lead largely because Derrick White dominated the matchup against Murray early on. Murray responded with 24 points on 8-of-14 shooting in Game 4 as the Nuggets fought back from 12 down and evened the series. Murray’s postseason numbers since then are sparkling: 23.3 points (46.4% FG, 35.6% 3), 4.4 rebounds, 5.6 assists.
Murray is playing the consistent basketball his head coach was searching for during the regular season and stepping up in crucial moments. The mental fortitude it took to shake off a terrible start to his postseason career, which included missing a potential game-winning jumper in Game 1 and getting roasted by White in Game 3, is why Murray has a chance to be special. Most 22-year-olds don’t bounce back like that. Most 22-year-olds don’t even attempt a shot like the one Murray hit to clinch Denver’s first series win in this new era.
“I love him,” Malone said. “I’m thankful I have the relationship I have with him and know that he’s going to be here for a long time.”