Entering bubble with potential, Nuggets’ Murray has risen to superstar status

Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray celebrates the team's win over the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 7. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

Jamal Murraybang!” came ESPN play-by-play man Mike Breen’s call as the kid from Kitchener knocked down a deep three that put the Denver Nuggets up 18 points with two minutes left, and guaranteed their 104-89 upset win over Kawhi Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers.

Murray put up another brilliant performance in a post-season full over them, finishing with 40 points on 15-of-26 shooting, supported by Nikola Jokic’s 16-point, 13-assist, 22-rebound triple double.

At the other end of the scale were the Clippers’ Leonard and Paul George, who were a combined 10-of-38 from the floor and scoreless — as in neither of them scored a single point — in the fourth quarter as the Nuggets turned an eight-point lead into a comfortable blowout.

What a disaster for the Clippers, what a moment for Murray and the Nuggets.

Some takeaways:

1. No matter what happened in Game 7, the Nuggets’ playoff run has elevated the common perception of Jamal Murray and set him up perfectly to begin the first year of a five-year, $170-million contract extension next season. The highest-paid athlete in Canadian sports is proving well worth the investment. His showing in his second Game seven in the space of two weeks was only more of the same. The mind reels at where Murray can take his game from here.

Prior to his instant classic head-to-head battle against Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz the 23-year-old Murray was deemed a promising player, but perhaps a bit of an overpay. His season averages — 18.5 points, four rebounds and 4.5 assists with a below league average TS% of 55.9 didn’t scream ‘max.’

But against Utah, the Nuggets needed to run things through him and he played basketball at a level only the true greats have ever reached, putting up 31.6 points on 55-per cent shooting, including 53.3 per cent from deep on nearly nine attempts a game.

It had been a tougher slog against the Clippers — of course it would be when Leonard, George, and Patrick Beverley are taking turns guarding you. But after shooting 37.6 per cent through the first five games against the Clippers, Murray put up a gutsy 21 points on 13 shots while clearly favouring his groin to help force a Game 7.

He kept Denver attached early after they fell behind by 12 in the second quarter, scoring 20 points in the second period alone mostly on a variety of floaters and pull-up jumpers. He had 25 in the first half on 11-of-17 shooting. He didn’t stop there, and finished as the second-youngest player to have ever dropped 40 in a Game 7.

Murray came into the bubble as a good player with upside, needing to live up to a big contract. No matter what happens from here, he’s signalled to the world that he’s ready to be a superstar.

2. You couldn’t blame Leonard for ending up in this predicament, playing for his playoff life in the second round. Well, other than he forced the hand of three organizations to make sure he could end up with the Clippers and with Paul George as his running mate.

But his free-agent maneuvering aside, Leonard had lived up to his end of the bargain as a Clipper — before Tuesday night at least. Leonard has been Leonard, a playoff force like few others. Prior to Game 7 he was averaging 29.4 points, 9.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists on 51-per cent shooting.

But he hasn’t had the help he was counting on. George has wilted in the moment more often than not. Lou Williams has been slumping. Doc Rivers has been short of answers. Still, the last time Leonard played in a Game 7, we know what happened. So, it was hard not to wonder what he’d have up the sleeve of his New Balance gear in his first chance since he hit The Shot to eliminate the Philadelphia 76ers when Leonard was on his way to lifting trophies in Toronto.

Not enough as it turned out.

He was 6-of-17 from the floor to start the fourth quarter and then missed his first five shots of the game, finishing at a shocking 5-of-22 from the floor as the game, series and season slipped through his giant fingers. He was looking for calls. He was looking for teammates to help him out, but Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry were nowhere to be found. The Raptors had already gone home. His Clippers teammates? They disappeared.

If there is a podcasting odd couple, this might be it. Donnovan Bennett and JD Bunkis don’t agree on much, but you’ll agree this is the best Toronto Raptors podcast going.

3. Leonard earned the right to call his shot after he led the Raptors to their title last year. He was acquired by trade, played his heart out at risk of injury and then leveraged his talents in free agency the way a smart businessman is supposed to.

But it’s hard to fight the urge to say ‘I told you so’ — at least in some corners of say, the Raptors fan base. He did his duty here but chose not to return to defend his title. Watching the Raptors’ season unfold, it’s hard not to see how Toronto wouldn’t have been overwhelming favourites to repeat had Leonard returned, but he wanted to go home.

The Clippers were a popular pick to win their first title, which would have been on par with James brining one home to Cleveland. But perhaps for the first time in his career, Leonard was a big-game flop and there was no one to pick him up. Not what he had planned.

4. Perhaps my favourite thing about this series — and about the NBA right now — is Jokic. They simply don’t make superstars like him anymore, in almost any sport, as cookie-cutter skills training and Olympic-level athleticism is the opening bid for entry into professional athletics.

So, behold Jokic, who was really tubby as a kid and only slightly less so in his first four years with the Nuggets before returning from the hiatus looking like the tall, skinny guy taking computer science.

Missing still are muscles, a loping, athletic gait or the ability to out-jump 35-year-old Marc Gasol. But what Jokic brings is a cargo container’s worth of skill, smarts and the ability to play without a care in the world.

His baseline turnaround jumper off his right leg, an awkward-yet-delicious bit of big-man ballet, has become a staple. His three-point shooting, 46 per cent for the playoffs through 13 games, is a weapon. The Nuggets guard will grab a defensive rebound and outlet to Jokic so he can orchestrate the break — like a giant, slower, Magic Johnson — or pick defences apart by passing out of the low post.

It’s basketball inside out and upside down. He dominated the game while taking just 13 shots. It’s must-see TV.

5. Waiting for the winner are the LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers, having played just 10 playoff games in three weeks as they eliminated Portland and Houston in five games each. And while the Western Conference Finals have been a much-anticipated showdown between the Lakers and the Clippers since they re-made themselves last summer, it seems fair to wonder if any team is up to the job.

It’s bad enough trying to contain James, but in Davis he’s got the best teammate he’s ever had. The multi-skilled seven-footer is averaging 27.6 points, 11 rebounds and 4.1 assists while shooting 59 per cent from the floor and 39 per cent from three. The Clippers were designed to make life difficult for James with two elite defensive wings in Leonard and George, but Davis loomed as an issue even if they had figured out Jokic and the Nuggets, which clearly never happened.

The Nuggets might match up better with Davis thanks to Jokic, but what to do with James? It’s a problem Murray, Jokic and the upstart Nuggets are doubtless thrilled to have.

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