With Jamal Murray returning to form, Nuggets look ready to make up for lost time

Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray reacts after guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope hit a 3-point basket against the Memphis Grizzlies during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, March 3, 2023, in Denver. (David Zalubowski/AP)

DENVER — It’s late in the third quarter of one of the bigger regular season games the NBA has had to offer this season, and Dillon Brooks of the Memphis Grizzlies has his old friend Jamal Murray of the Denver Nuggets exactly where he wants him. 

Memphis, the second-place team in the Western Conference, has controlled the game to this point. And Brooks, the Grizzlies’ tenacious and loquacious defensive specialist, has largely controlled Murray, the Nuggets guard who is inching his way back to peak performance after a devastating ACL injury that cost him and the Nuggets a chance at an NBA championship, perhaps two. 

Brooks having the upper hand on Murray was not always the case. The two are close friends off the court, and as teenagers played together for the prestigious CIA Bounce program for which so many of Canada’s current roster of NBA players suited up over the years. 

But before they played together, or began matching up in the NBA, Brooks was playing club basketball for the Brampton Warriors and Murray was playing for his Kitchener club, and it wasn’t pretty. “He used to torch us,” says Brooks. “He’d give us 30, 40, easy.”

There are a number of NBA teams that can nod in agreement. Through seven seasons Murray has proven that when he gets rolling he’s hard to stop, and the brighter the lights, the more likely he is to shine. 

“He’s a dog,” says Brooks. “He’s not scared.”

But things haven’t come so easily for Murray against the Grizzlies lately. Just a couple of weeks ago he had one of his worst games of the season in Memphis – 3-of-13 from the floor for eight points – as the Nuggets got blown out on the road. For his career, Murray’s scoring and efficiency splits against the Grizzlies are among his worst compared to any other team in the league. 

And through the first half and most of the third quarter of Friday’s game, a match-up which could effectively decide the first seed in the Western Conference – the winner would clinch the season series and the tiebreaker which would be crucial if the Grizzlies were to reel in the Nuggets – history was repeating itself. 

Murray had managed just five points in the first half, shooting 2-of-7 with Brooks draped all over him as Denver fell behind early. Murray shook loose for a three early in the third quarter, but missed his next three shots and, at this moment, was well on his way to missing his fourth as Brooks was using his powerful 6-foot-7, 230-pound frame to funnel Murray deep into the corner with nowhere to go and shot clock winding down. 

But Murray seemed unhurried and unconcerned, and here’s why: as the clock neared zero he jabbed Brooks back behind the three-point line to create a sliver of space, stepped back and rose up just high enough to get the ball over his old rival’s fingertips. Bull’s eye. 

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The Nuggets bench erupts, as does the crowd at Ball Arena. Murray making shots few others can is part of the recipe Denver is counting on as it tries to bring the first NBA championship to the foot of the Rockies. It is also a reminder of what’s been missing.

“He’s getting back to where he was before the injury, playing with extreme confidence, making tough shots,” said Nuggets wing Bruce Brown, one of the finishing pieces that Denver added in the off-season to build out one of the deepest rotations in the league around two-time defending MVP Nikola Jokic. “That shot he hit over Dillon Brooks in the corner was insane.”

The Nuggets have been waiting for Murray’s ‘did he really do that?’ shot-making that was seemingly routine before his left leg buckled as he drove the lane against the Golden State Warriors on April 4, 2021, and Murray was writhing in pain, slapping the court in frustration.

They were without his ability to score during what turned out to be fruitless, injury-plagued run to the second round that season and then all of the 2021-22 season as the depleted Nuggets – who were also without sharpshooter Michael Porter Jr. for the season after he underwent back surgery – were knocked out in the first round, losing in five games to the Warriors. 

The last time Murray was in the playoffs it was the summer of 2020 when Denver advanced to the Western Conference Finals and he put together a post-season performance any superstar would be proud of, as he averaged 27 points and seven assists a game on 50/40/90 shooting splits.

Murray’s shown it in stretches this season. Over a 13-game sample beginning in early January, the Kitchener native averaged 25.6 points and 6.8 assists a game while shooting 48.6 per cent from three on nearly eight attempts as the Nuggets went 11-2. 

And for the season – it should be noted – Murray’s box score line is in line or slightly better than his numbers when he got hurt, as he’s averaging 20.2 points and 6.0 assists with an effective field goal percentage of 53.2. His scoring is down slightly, but his assists are up and his efficiency is just above his career average. 

But after a season-high 41 in a blowout win over the Atlanta Hawks, Murray missed the six games before the all-star break with inflammation in his right knee, and other than a strong outing (32 points and six assists) against the defence-optional Houston Rockets, his play has been spotty as he tries to get up to speed after nearly three weeks off.

Not that he’s worried. “I’m just playing and trying to get better,” he says. “I’ll let y’all determine [that]. I’m just playing, having fun, and progressing and working on my recovery.”

The prospect of Murray performing in the playoffs the way he did during the Nuggets’ run to the Conference Finals three years ago is an enticing one. After two seasons ruptured by injury, having not only Murray back but Porter Jr. rounding into form while Jokic makes a nightly case for his third straight MVP has the Nuggets looking like a team on a mission.

They are neck and neck with Boston and Milwaukee for the best record in the league, have lost just four games at home all season and at 45-19 have a six-game advantage over Memphis in the Western Conference, but nothing is being taken for granted. 

The last time the Nuggets looked this dangerous was after the trade deadline in 2020-21 when they added Aaron Gordon, who projected to be the perfect complement – a big athletic wing who provided a defensive presence they needed and a high-flying finisher that could make opponents pay for over-playing Jokic – to their existing lineup. Overnight the Nuggets went from an interesting young team that could score to a legitimate title contender. But two games after the deadline Murray was down on the floor clutching his knee, and the Nuggets have been waiting to be a complete team since. 

They’re over the disappointment of what could have been, but they haven’t forgotten an opportunity missed. 

“I always allude to the game in LA when after the Aaron Gordon trade when we beat a really good, fully healthy Lakers team and I think that was the game where we all looked around and said ‘okay, we have a chance to win this, we got a special team’,” said Nuggets head coach Mike Malone. “And then Jamal goes down shortly thereafter in Golden State … [but] it’s always about experiences and using that as motivation.”

Raptors wing Will Barton played eight seasons in Denver before being traded in the off-season. Not seeing what that 2020-21 team could have done without the injuries still bothers him two years later. 

“I really felt like we were going to win it that year. We had all the pieces there,” Barton said. “We had a great starting lineup, size, versatility, shooting, playmakers, Joker was the MVP, we had a good bench … sometimes it’s not meant to be.”

As Murray has returned to form and the Nuggets roster has filled out, Denver’s belief has grown commensurately. Jeff Green is in his 15th season and playing with his eighth team and can see a path to his first championship ring. The Nuggets won 48 games and finished sixth in the West a year ago in his first season in Denver, and now they are on pace for 58 wins this year and might be the best team in the league. 

“From the eye test you can see that’s it’s a lot easier offensively, the flow of our offence is better,” said Green. “It’s hard for teams to dial in on one guy the way they tried to on Joker last year. You have to respect what Jamal can bring to the table – and also Michael Porter. But Jamal, that guy’s a threat. It’s hard for teams to be doubling or tripling on the post when you have guys like that on the floor. He’s a big part of what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Their goals are high. As Murray said earlier this season when reflecting on what kept him motivated during an arduous 18-month rehabilitation process was not just returning to where he and the Nuggets were before he was hurt, but to be better than they were before, individually and collectively. Where in the early days of his rehab he’d measure progress by being able to lift his leg off the bed post-surgery to being able to jog tentatively and then being able to jump, if only inches off the ground at first, the big goals were always out there, waiting. 

“Winning a championship,” he said early this season in a Nuggets-produced feature about his comeback. “And back-to-back championships. That’s what I’m thinking. I don’t want to win one, I want to win multiple.”

They’ll need Murray at his daring best to do it. Jokic is the fulcrum around which everything revolves in Denver, but Murray is the one willing to push the envelope in games or moments where the stakes are highest. 

“I know he’s anxious to get back to the playoffs,” said Barton. “The regular season is just tune up for him to get his confidence back, and I know once he gets to the playoffs he’ll make that leap. He’s so competitive – that’s what I love about him, he competes at such a high level, and he loves the bright lights. That’s one guy they won’t have to worry about, because he’s going to perform.”

It was all there to see Friday against Memphis in a regular-season game that had gusts of playoff intensity. The Nuggets’ past and future were coming together in Murray’s present. The unlikely three he made make in the corner against Brooks sparked something. Suddenly there is a skip in his step, the eyes are bigger. 

Early in the fourth quarter, Murray dances into a tough step-back jumper over Brooks and in quick succession beat him to the rim, driving left and then right. Finally, Murray squares up from the left wing and nails another tough, contested three and brings the house down as he makes his way back down the floor gesturing to the crowd, the Grizzlies, Brooks and anyone else nearby. He scores 11 points in a 21-6 Nuggets run that breaks the game open. 

For six minutes on a Friday night, Murray looks the same as he ever was on his way to 22 points, nine assists and a clutch performance at an important moment in the schedule.  

“He got to the paint a little bit, got a couple of calls. He hit a couple of fluky ones on me, but he’s a great player, he makes those shots, he makes tough ones,” said Brooks in a near-empty visitor’s locker room after the game. “He knows how I play, I know how he plays, we talk back and forth. We always battle, we’re both competitive guys, and he was ready. He played a great game.”

It’s all the Nuggets can hope for as they try to make up for lost time. After nearly two years of waiting, his chance to return to the playoffs, where he’s shone brightest, is at hand. A Friday night showdown against a conference rival and butting heads against an old friend in a game that means something? 

Sign him up. 

“It’s a lot of fun to be out there with a squad that’s bringing the same energy and the crowd behind us,” said Murray. “It’s fun.”

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