Jamal Murray’s basketball career defined by ability to overcome any test

Denver Nuggets star Jamal Murray goes up for a shot during the first half of a playoff game against the Los Angeles Clippers. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

Life in the bubble has been pretty good to Jamal Murray, the Denver Nuggets guard from Kitchener, Ont., who has become the breakout story on the breakout team in the NBA playoffs.

He’s not upset about the lack of distractions or not having the comforts of home or missing family and friends — although he does miss his family and friends.

He’s living life whittled down to bare essentials — eat, sleep and play hoops — and it suits him perfectly.

“It’s been fun, the bubble’s been fun,” the 23-year-old Murray said on a conference call with Canadian media on Thursday night in advance of Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals Friday night against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. “…When you’re addicted to basketball like I am, it makes it that much better and that much more enjoyable.”

The winning, and the ability to seemingly take over games at will likely helps too. The Nuggets aren’t exactly a rag-tag, underdog story. They were the third seed in the tightly-packed Western Conference and Murray along with co-star Nikola Jokic have already been rewarded with ‘max’ contracts – Murray’s $170-million deal that kicks in next season will make him the highest paid Canadian athlete ever.

But they’re the first team to come back from 3-1 deficits in best-of-seven series twice and Murray’s pyrotechnics in the first and second round against Utah and the heavily favoured Los Angeles Clippers and Kawhi Leonard are a massive reason why.

Murry became the second-youngest player in NBA history to score 40 points in a Game 7 when he put the Clippers away on Tuesday night and his dominance against Utah — he averaged 31.6 points a game with a True Shooting percentage of 68.2 — was one of the best seven-game playoff performances in league history: no one has ever scored at that volume with that level of efficiency.

The reward is a chance to knock off James and his co-star, Anthony Davis, for a berth in the NBA Finals. The Nuggets will be underdogs again, and Murray’s perfectly fine with that too.

“As much as I’ve seen LeBron or looked up to LeBron and had him as my idol, now it’s time to go in there and [take] the work that I’m putting in all these years and put it to the test,” he said. “It’s a blessing to be here. I’m glad I’m healthy, and I’m happy and be able to go against LeBron and AD in the Western Conference Finals. It’s a dream come true for me and will really test me in a lot of different ways.”

It’s his ability to overcome tests — to will himself through perceived barriers — that has set Murray apart on his journey to what is shaping up to be the most impressive NBA career by any Canadian not named Steve Nash.

Those that know him best aren’t surprised.

“Honestly, I’m not,” says Tony McIntyre, director of basketball operations and head coach at Orangeville Prep, where Murray starred before playing one season for the University of Kentucky prior to the Nuggets taking him seventh overall in the 2016 draft. “If his back is against the wall, that’s when you get the best of Jamal Murray you are ever going to get. Down 3-1? You are getting all of Jamal.”

Murray is athletic but not in the eye-popping way that it can take to stand out in the NBA and at six-foot-five, he’s fairly average in size. And while to this point in his career he’s been an effective player on a young, rising team, until recently he’d only shown the upper reaches of his potential in flashes. But now that it’s coming on in waves those who watched him as an emerging talent following his own path — staying in Canada for high school, as an example — say Murray was due to explode; it was only a matter of when. His combination of skill, talent and most-importantly his self-belief, almost guaranteed it.

“He just consistently performs on the biggest stage, he always did, but for some reason people kind of looked at him with a little bit of skepticism,” said Roy Rana, the former Canadian national team head coach — now an assistant with the Sacramento Kings — who coached Murray twice at the Nike Hoop Summit, the premier showcase for high school-aged NBA prospects.

The rosters read like a who’s who of NBA draft boards — in 2014 Murray played on a world team that included Jokic, Minnesota Timberwolves star Karl-Anthony Towns and Atlanta Hawks centre Clint Capela.

“There were other guys with a bigger rep, but he has the right energy, guys like playing with him and he’s always willing to be the guy who fails,” said Rana, who put the ball in Murray’s hands in the 2015 game and watched him put up 30 points and earn MVP honours. “Other guys they’re not always ok with that, they get a little tight. Jamal was never like that… mentally he’s always been the same. He’s the strongest player, mentally, I’ve ever coached.”

It’s something he’s cultivated, with the help of his father Roger, who pushed Murray but has always been his strongest supporter. He introduced his son to martial arts and used Bruce Lee as an example of the kind of elite focus it takes to perform seemingly impossible tasks. Murray meditates as a routine and drills himself to shape his thoughts as meticulously as he does his basketball skills.

“This experience may be new to him,” says McIntyre, “But don’t think he hasn’t dreamed about it, visualized it, planned for it and executed it in his mind hundreds of times. The game is as much mental as it is physical and he’s always had incredible self-belief – all the best ones do.”

The nearly four-month hiatus the NBA took after the pandemic hit was an opportunity Murray took to come back stronger in every aspect.

“Obviously I trained and everything, that’s all part of it, but a lot of it is mental work as well. Knowing what you’ve got and knowing what it takes to win and knowing what the team needs you to do to win,” he said. “I can step (up) and make some shots, but it’s been a collective unit, collective group, to get these wins. The way we’ve moved the ball has helped everybody. I’m just trying to keep everyone organized and be more vocal, talk more on offence and defence. Really have more dialogue with coach, really what we’re seeing. It’s cool to be winning and playing at a high level against some really good basketball players and really good teams.”

It’s also cool to do it as a Canadian, something Murray takes great pride in. His plan was to help Canada qualify for the Olympics this summer and lead them to the podium once there, but he’s used the platform of the NBA playoffs to send a similar message: Canadian basketball is a force to be reckoned with.

“It’s cool to turn some heads,” he said. “Coming from Canada, I’ve already, always had people doubt me, or doubt my ability or what we can do on the court. So as a group, when we win these games, fight back, play a certain way, it’s cool to see everybody react to that and make these non-believers into believers. All these criticizers have kind of (had to) eat their words. Because nobody believed we could be here and time and time again we’ve shown we have that capability and now there’s four teams left, so, we’re blessed to be part of that and we’re just going to keep letting our game talk.”

He’s kept things simple off the court as he roams the NBA campus at the Walt Disney World Resort. It’s a routine he’s hoping to keep until mid-October when the NBA championship will be awarded.

“I have practice and I get some food, I got back to my room, I sleep,” he says. “Then I’ll have a game, then I’ll sleep, then I’ll eat. Then I’ll walk by the pool, now there’s families here so you see all the families walking around, I’m like, ‘OK, I’mma go back to my room,’ I haven’t showered yet so I’mma shower. Then I play some video games and then I sleep. [I’ve been]… having quite a lot of dreams lately here in the bubble.”

Most of them are coming true.

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