Two seasons ago, while Nikola Jokic stamped himself as a perennial MVP candidate, Jamal Murray had also taken a leap to fortify the Denver Nuggets title hopes. Jokic’s rise from All-NBA center to mainstay MVP contender was crucial to Denver’s chances of a ring in 2020-21. But similarly crucial was Murray maintaining his electric Bubble showcase to become a bona fide All-Star-caliber guard.
That year, the former Kentucky Wildcat averaged 21.2 points, 4.8 assists (2.3 turnovers), 4 rebounds and 1.3 steals on 59.2 percent true shooting (.477/.408/.869). Over his final 25 full games, he was especially prolific, dropping a nightly 24-5-4 on 64 percent true shooting. At 24 years old, he looked the part of a dynamic three-level scorer and consummate co-star alongside his MVP teammate for the foreseeable future as they pursued deep playoff runs together.
Of course, Murray’s flight to full-fledged stardom caught a lengthy delay after he tore his left ACL on April 12, 2021 and missed the entirety of 2021-22. When he returned to the floor this season, his verve and flow understandably lagged behind where they sat 18 months prior. As of late, however, Murray’s rediscovering his rhythm and returning to his pre-injury ways.
Through his initial 25 games, he averaged 17.5 points, 5.4 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 0.8 steals on 53 percent true shooting (.437/.338/.765 split). Since Dec. 23 (20 games played), he’s averaging 23.7 points, 6.3 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 1.1 steals on 62.6 percent true shooting (.488/.450/.897 split).
Denver is 17-3 during those outings, as well as 15-2 when both he and Jokic suit up. At 38-17, the Nuggets own the NBA’s second-best record and are 4.5 games clear of the No. 2 seed Memphis Grizzlies out West.
Questions justifiably persist about their defense. They don’t have a viable primary rim protector. The backside rotations in ball-screen coverages remain inconsistent, as does Jokic’s motor and impact in those situations. The point-of-attack options and screen navigation can be unreliable at times. Yet, they are sixth in defensive rating since Dec. 8 and 24-7 over that period after a 27th-place ranking amid a bumpy 14-10 start. Many of the early season breakdowns have been streamlined.
Nonetheless, the defense might not ultimately hold back this club, even if sporadic execution continues. The offensive potency could be that lethal. The league’s premier offensive talent, Jokic is a wunderkind almost impervious to detrimental surrounding context on that end. That’s been the case for their past two playoff defeats, though.
Murray’s resurgence (and availability) is the skeleton key. Much like 2020-21, he’s playing some of the best basketball of his career in the second half of the year. Plus, across 33 playoff games, he’s averaged 24.3 points, 5.8 assists and 4.6 assists on 58.8 percent true shooting. He’s no stranger to prolonged scoring surges, regardless of how one interprets production from the Bubble.
By and large, Murray’s shot profile over this 20-game run resembles that of his first 25 games before he established his footing on a nightly basis. Roughly 20 percent of his shots are coming at the rim, with another 40 percent from midrange and the final ~35 percent allotted to long-range looks, per Cleaning The Glass. The differentiator is the quality of those attempts and the manner in which Murray is arrives at them.
Comfortable elevating on a whim and rising above defenders, he’s much more spry, while also reading the floor astutely. Murray knows where he wants to venture on the court and has the means to do so. Early in the year, it seemed like he kind of knew what he wanted to do, but couldn’t always achieve it and was unsure about how to compensate. That dissonance led him to dribble himself into precarious spots at times and churn out suboptimal decisions.
There’s a renewed bounciness to his movement patterns, which is amplifying his creative shot-making portfolio. His change of direction and start-stop juice are humming. Whether it’s launch-backs, step-throughs, half (or full) spins into turnarounds or up-and-unders, he’s manufacturing loads of space off the bounce.
Just because his shot location hasn’t dramatically shifted shouldn’t imply his shot diet isn’t different. His quality of jumpers are significantly better over the past six weeks and he’s converting them like an off-the-bounce maestro. Among the 47 players to log at least 100 pull-up jumpers since Dec. 23, Murray’s effective field goal percentage of 53.7 ranks eighth, according to NBA.com.
Prior to Dec. 23, 35.1 percent of his field goals were triples. Since then, that mark has spiked to 41.2 percent. Beyond box score stats, this is one of the most prevalent areas where the numbers reflect the eye test. He’s getting his legs under him again. That pre-injury vigor is returning. He doesn’t have to saunter into the midrange as commonly to find preferable shots.
Snapping out of a frigid spell as a spot-up sniper has helped considerably, too. To begin the year, he drilled just 26.9 percent (15 of 56) of his catch-and-shoot 3s before netting 47.3 percent of his next 55 attempts (26 of 55).
Murray’s slashing game is also a beneficiary of his athletic improvements. Whereas he recorded 10.4 drives per 36 minutes through his first 25 games, he’s up to 11.7 over the past 20, according to NBA.com. Not only is he driving a bit more, he’s producing at a much higher clip, now yielding points on 62.8 percent of his chances rather than 54.1 percent.
His manipulation of picks continues to heighten — a hallmark of his pre-injury skill set — as does his ingenuity and contortion as a finisher. He’s never been a straight-line speedster, but instead wins with deceleration, vertical explosion and changes of direction. Those traits, perhaps as crisp as ever, are fueling his fortuitous downhill adventures.
Through the first couple months of the season, the Nuggets’ second banana was Aaron Gordon, who put together a credible, albeit unrewarded, All-Star campaign. Recently, that mantle has belonged to Murray, whose physical strides are accompanied by a tad more on-ball freedom and massive uptick in output.
The Nuggets don’t need anyone to join Jokic in Salt Lake City later this month to enter the playoffs as premier title contenders led by two stars (a midseason showcase shouldn’t be the regulator for that label months later in a distinct environment anyway). Given how Murray is rocking out, that reality is growing increasingly plausible and might just be the determining factor in this franchise’s pursuit of its first championship.