Jamal Murray’s Nuggets teammates knew he would deliver big in Game 2 win over Lakers

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Jamal Murray’s Nuggets teammates knew he would deliver big in Game 2 win over Lakers

DENVER — Jamal Murray didn’t see the game-winner — one that may eventually become iconic — go through the hoop.

To even get the ball out of his hands and over the length of Los Angeles Lakers center Anthony Davis, Murray had to significantly fade away from the basket. He had to release the ball at the apex of his jump. As a result, he ended up on the floor, at the foot of the Denver Nuggets bench, with Davis tripping over him.

The Ball Arena sellout crowd hitting a fever pitch told Murray, who struggled to breathe as his teammates piled on top of him, everything he needed to know about the result of the shot that allowed the Nuggets to win Game 2 101-99, an instant classic.

“I heard everyone screaming,” Murray said. “That’s how I knew it went in. I jumped pretty high and faded a lot. I think I saw the ball go over the rim. But that last play, Jok (Denver superstar Nikola Jokić) was kind of looming and waiting for me to make a decision. I just had to elevate. Fortunately, I made the shot.”

Murray’s emotions ran several ways. There was relief, as he finished one of the most difficult games of his career on the highest note. There was the joy of a win that gave Denver a 2-0 series lead and command of its first-round series against Los Angeles. There was the raw emotion that told the story of a team rallying around one of its star players in a way that’s uncommon in professional sports, an almost universal show of support and chemistry not many teams can achieve.

As the reigning NBA champs, the Nuggets have won their share of big games over the past two seasons. But Monday night’s Game 2, even if it’s a Western Conference first-round series, has to rank with the best of them. This was a game where Denver found itself down by as many as 20 points midway through the third quarter. This was a game where the Nuggets had to survive Los Angeles star LeBron James coming up with a huge fourth quarter, in which he willed the Lakers to the finish line, one Murray and the Nuggets crossed first. This was a game where Murray missed 16 of his first 19 shots and looked as out of sorts as he has looked in the last two playoff runs.

But Denver heads to Los Angeles for Thursday night’s Game 3 as the winner of 10 consecutive head-to-head matchups with the Lakers. The Lakers are Charlie Brown and the Nuggets are Lucy. At this point, it seems as if Los Angeles will never find a way to take a game off Denver, much less a series.



Lakers blow big lead vs. Nuggets in Game 2, which felt like a death blow

If anything, Monday reinforces the notion that Murray is the Nuggets’ barometer. The production from Jokić is omnipresent and as consistent as your yearly tax return. His Game 2 consisted of 27 points, to go along with 20 rebounds and 10 assists, a monstrous night even for the best player in the world. But, when Murray doesn’t play well to balance the excellence of Jokić, the Nuggets are mortal. That was evident in Monday’s first three quarters. But when Murray steps into a phone booth, spins around three times and emerges as “playoff Jamal,” the Nuggets hit the stratosphere.

“There really is a playoff Jamal,” Denver head coach Michael Malone said. “All of those commercials you see, the persona is real. He will never shy away from the moment, and all he needs is to see one go in.”

Murray wasn’t just missing shots in the first three quarters. He was legitimately having a bad game, a horrible game. Murray struggled in Game 1 from the field, but his  playmaking and defense was excellent. On Monday night, he was bad all around.

But this is where the Nuggets are unique. Throughout the night, whenever Murray was on the bench, his teammates kept telling him one thing: Keep shooting the ball. There was a point in the third quarter where Murray went to the bench and lost his temper, frustrated at the way he was playing. When he did so, backup point guard Collin Gillespie slid into the seat next to him and told him the line that would eventually prove prophetic.

“You’re going to hit the game-winning shot.”

Of course, the Nuggets were down big at the time, but the words stuck with Murray. The tantrum stopped, and he began to try and find solutions instead of feeling sorry for himself. His first answer was to become more of a playmaker. He began telling his teammates to look for the ball. He would scale way back on the shooting, and just try to affect the game positively in another way.

That idea was immediately and universally panned.

“They all said no,” Murray said. “We need you to shoot the ball. We need you to keep being aggressive offensively.”

The rest of the Nuggets were right, in this sense. If Murray went into a shell offensively, that would shift even more pressure on Jokić to look for his shot. And despite his overall dominance on Monday night, Jokić had his hands full with Davis, who himself had a terrific game. The second option was for Murray simply to find his offense, whichever way that came.

The Lakers may have unwittingly helped with that part, starting the fourth quarter with reserve guard Gabe Vincent as Murray’s primary defender. Vincent is four inches shorter than Murray, which allowed Murray to get to his spots and shoot over the top. Once Murray saw a few shots go in, the Lakers couldn’t find a way to turn his water off. In all, Murray went 6-of-8 from the field in the fourth quarter, scoring 14 of his 20 points. The fact that Murray finished 9-of-24 overall highlights the depth of his struggles throughout the game. The fact that he made six of his eight shots when the stakes were at its highest shows how strikingly fast Murray can become a devastating offensive threat.

“The thing about Jamal is that we know what he’s capable of,” Jokić said. “We obviously would like him to make every shot, but we know that everyone goes through a bad stretch. We know what he’s capable of, and we want him to shoot the ball because we know he can make all kinds of shots.”

After the game, Malone recalled the first time this Denver group made the playoffs and how Murray struggled in Game 2 agains the San Antonio Spurs. He told Murray to keep shooting the ball, and he told him that he was the future of the organization.

From a chemistry standpoint, it’s that kind of reinforcement that has fueled this Nuggets run.

“We know it doesn’t take much for him,” Malone said.

The meat of their 10-game winning streak against the Lakers is rooted in how well Denver executes at the most important moments. On Monday night, the Nuggets converted on eight of their final nine possessions. They scored at a rate of 200 points per 100 possessions over the last five minutes. And in this series, the Nuggets have outscored the Lakers 114-83 in the second half, which includes 57-40 on Monday night.

It tells a continuing story of Denver knowing exactly how and what it wants to do in the most important possessions of a game. And it provides a stark contrast to what the Lakers are doing to counter it. Malone’s adjustments on the fly were nothing short of brilliant, particularly switching Aaron Gordon onto Davis in the second half, when Davis was cooking Jokić offensively. Davis scored one basket on Gordon. He didn’t score after the seven minute mark of the third quarter.

“It speaks to a team that has tremendous confidence in themselves, and more importantly the collective,” Malone said. “We’re the reigning champions. We may get down by 20 points, but we’re not going to roll over. That’s not who we are.

“So it speaks to guys trusting the process, staying with it, making the needed adjustments and guys stepping up and making plays. This is a great win, but we just did our job. We won two games at home. There’s a lot of basketball to be played. We’re going to enjoy this, and then we’re going to get back to work.”

(Photo: Bart Young / NBAE via Getty Images)