Some NBA players treat post-game interviews like fashion moments. They wear elegant haute couture outfits, shirts with bright designs or bold prints, anything to make them stand out.
But on Wednesday night, Denver Nuggets defenseman Jamal Murray entered the interview room after winning Game 3 of the NBA Finals in a modest white T-shirt and baggy gray sweatpants. A few glitters here and there – a sparkling bracelet and large stud earrings – added some sparkle.
Murray’s clothing represented an enduring dichotomy in his public persona. There are ways in which he appears humble, perhaps because he is often overshadowed by his teammate. Nikola Jokic. But when you really pay attention, especially during this year’s playoffs, his play sparkles through that perception.
“Jamal, he’s a guy who thrives, lives and thrives in the moment,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Never be afraid of that. Which can’t be said for many players.”
When people talk about the Nuggets, they tend to focus more on Jokic than Murray. It makes sense: Jokic is the engine of the team and a two-time MVP winner. He was the only All-Star this season and has become a nightmare for Denver’s playoff rivals due to his size, strength and unique ability to ease the team’s offense as a center.
The depth of Jokic’s talent may lead some people to underestimate Murray’s contribution as a dynamic starting point guard and second scorer for Denver. But on Wednesday, Murray was hard to miss as he passed Jokic to help Denver take a 2-1 lead in the series against the Miami Heat. With a 109-94 win, the Nuggets regained the home court lead they lost on Sunday when Hit won game 2 in Denver as Murray fell behind. To win the series and the championship, the Nuggets need Murray to do well the way he did in Game 3.
“I mean, we’re winning,” Jokic said when asked what it means to the Nuggets that Murray plays as well as he plays in the playoffs. “I think it’s pretty simple. But he plays phenomenally.”
Part of what obscures Murray’s dynamism is his difficult path, in addition to the big shadow cast by Jokic. Murray does not attract much attention off the court. He is from a small town in Canada and has been openly meditating since high school.
He was becoming a star in the 2019/20 season when the coronavirus pandemic threatened to cut his path short. He had the best offensive season of his career, averaging 18.8 points per game, when the NBA suspended the season for several months in March 2020 due to the pandemic.
When the season resumed at Disney World’s secluded Florida campus in July of that year, Murray felt even better. He averaged 26.5 points and 6.6 assists per game in the playoffs as the Nuggets made their way to the Western Conference Finals.
Doc Rivers, who was coaching the Los Angeles Clippers at the time, would sometimes see Murray and Malone cutting their hair on the Florida campus. The Clippers faced the Nuggets in the conference semi-finals and lost despite leading the series 3–1.
“This is a nightmare for me,” Rivers said in April. “He was incredible.”
A year later, when it looked like the Nuggets would be in contention for the championship, Murray tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and missed the 2021 playoffs, beginning a recovery process that could take two full years. This was 26 months ago.
“I really think he’s back in the same direction,” Rivers said in April, referring to Murray’s stellar turn at Disney World. He added: “He’s starting to do it consistently and it’s probably what people are waiting for, but it’s going to happen. You can see it happening.”
Murray missed the entire 2021-22 season, including the Nuggets’ brief trip to the playoffs, where they lost to the Golden State Warriors in the first round. This is his first playoff appearance since his days at Disney World.
On Wednesday, Malone said that Murray “wanted so badly to get back into that setting, just go in there and put on the show he’s putting on.”
He scored over 30 points in eight of the Nuggets’ 18 games this playoff. He scored 37 points twice in four games against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. He had 10 assists in every game of the final.
“Jamal, he demands a lot of himself,” Nuggets defenseman Christian Brown said. He continued, “That’s what we expect from him.”
Murray had 26 points, 6 rebounds and 10 assists in the first game. In the second game, the Heat focused on neutralizing him. They put their best player on him, the indefatigable Jimmy Butler, and often double-teamed him. Murray scored 18 points in the game.
“I’m not going to tell you how to beat it,” Murray said Tuesday, referring to the Heat plan, “but I have my ways.” He smiled as he thought about it.
In the moments after Game 2, Murray feigned self-confidence. But over the next few days, Malone saw the truth. Murray didn’t brush off the defeat at all. He internalized it and blamed himself.
“I felt like I didn’t bring the intensity that the moment required,” Murray said. “Despite the fact that I didn’t play terrible, I felt that I could have done a lot more. Most people who have watched the Nuggets game say that when I have a game like this, I will most likely bounce back.”
On Wednesday night, Murray responded with 34 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. He and Jokic became the first pair of NBA teammates in any regular season or playoff game to have a triple-double with at least 30 points in the same game. Jokic finished with 32 points, 21 rebounds and 10 assists, becoming the first player in NBA history to record at least 30 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists in a final game.
“That’s greatness,” Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon said. “They’re a dynamic duo.”
Murray scored 20 points in the first half, making 8 of 13 shots, including 3 of 5 three-pointers. Murray had a habit of landing big hits to thwart heat races. Miami trailed by as much as 21 points.
“Jamal set the tone for their group and he was aggressive and assertive,” guard Kyle Lowry said, adding, “It made Jokic’s life a little easier.”
Murray scored less in the second half, but played well on defense and off the ball.
“Forget the stats for a second – I felt Jamal’s presence, his energy, and he was here at the moment,” Malone said. “And for him and Nikola, what they did tonight in a game that we needed to win, to regain home court advantage in the series, was a very special sight.”
Murray spoke in a situation of high pressure. He felt burdened by his game in the second game, but didn’t shy away from that feeling.
“People ask, ‘This is a big stage. Are you nervous and all?” Murray said. “You should be. That’s what makes you care. That’s what makes you alive. That’s what makes you enjoy those moments.”