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SBNation.com – All Posts: Jamal Murray is no sidekick


2023 NBA Finals - Game Five
Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Murray proved himself again on the NBA biggest stage to help lead the Nuggets to their first ever championship.

During Jamal Murray’s last two playoff runs, the focus rightfully fixated on his remarkable blend of scoring volume and efficiency. In 2020, he averaged 26.5 points on 62.6 percent true shooting. As the Denver Nuggets rampaged through the Western Conference this year, he averaged 27.7 points on 59.5 percent true shooting. Against the Miami Heat, those marks fell to 21.4 and 55.1. Despite the declines, Murray remained a riddle the defense could not solve.

The Heat, headlined by Bam Adebayo and flanked by a slew of physical, rangy perimeter defenders, devoted numerous coverages his direction. They played traditional drop coverage. They had Adebayo hover around the level of the screen. They switched. They trapped. They blitzed. They implemented zones of different formations. They shifted how, where and when the help defense arrived. Murray was treated like a star because he played like a star in the face of all those gameplans.

Amid that carousel of defensive tactics, the 26-year-old logged 50 assists to only 17 giveaways in five games. One of the NBA’s foremost defenders was relentlessly in his airspace, while one of its foremost tacticians constantly dialed up novel looks to try and stymie him. The Murray-Nikola Jokic soirée never quieted primarily because Jokic cannot be schemed against, but also because Murray had an answer almost every time as well.

With a velcro handle and generational playmaking, Jokic is often considered a towering, jumbo-sized point guard and understandably so. He is the Nuggets’ premier facilitator and initiates possessions nightly for them. But Murray absolutely fits the mold. Long considered a combo guard whose scoring gusto masked some decision-making warts, he thrived as a decision-maker in the grandest series of his life, even if the occasional hiccups persisted. Not only did it represent progress from earlier in his career, it represented progress from earlier in these playoffs, when he sometimes dribbled possessions to a halt or overindulged in self-creation pursuits because he deemed an individual matchup advantageous.

One of the hallmarks of this wheeling and dealing Nuggets offense is its discretion. Jokic’s brilliance and versatility anchors their league-best offense, but the intentionality and selectivity behind their hunting of mismatches are distinguishing pillars as well. Whereas a prolific regular season offense like the Boston Celtics sees possessions devolve, with attempts to laser in on a specific mismatch stalling out — which ultimately hampered their playoff viability — Denver does not get sidetracked; the Philadelphia 76ers were schematically different than Boston but encountered similar postseason hurdles following regular season profits. Instead, the Nuggets ruthlessly expose mismatches and are keen recognizing how and when to solidify them, but refuse to seek them out to the detriment of offensive flow.

Murray helps establish that identity. Time and time again, he strung out a ball screen by wielding his scoring aura and occupying Adebayo to thread open shots or mismatches for his MVP dance partner. Cadence is a crucial component of effective ball-handling; great initiators like Steve Nash and Chris Paul exemplify its vitality. Murray’s cadence continually eased offense for the Nuggets and placed Miami in a bind.

A few of these plays don’t even result in assists for him, but underscore he and Denver’s steadfast capacity to weaponize the multifaceted nature of their offense. Sometimes, Miami’s least harmful option was to switch. Murray happily obliged.

Murray and Jokic are the NBA’s most harmonic star duo. They’re a pair of three-level scorers, one of whom is 6’4 and an off-the-dribble killer, the other of whom is 6’11, a passing savant and an unflinching workhorse down low, in addition to his other exploits that such a brief label cannot properly capture. Anywhere within ~25 feet of the hoop graces their scoring domains. Their two-man game is prevalent in an array of actions. That is why Miami resigned itself to switching their screens so frequently. The alternatives likely meant granting one of them an open road to rock out.

But their contrasting builds and repertoires are similarly why they both bask in those chances. A switch is usually a deathknell for the defense. Murray guaranteed that it would be for Miami, especially later in the series.

After Game 1, when Murray scored 26 points on 22 shots to open the series, the Heat put Jimmy Butler on him and brought strong-side help in the midrange to curtail his scoring. After Game 3, when he countered that fleetingly successful gambit and scored 34 points on 22 shots, they trapped him more and tried to take away Jokic as a release valve by rotating a third defender into their actions. Routinely doubled by a bouquet of imposing limbs or wrangling with Adebayo, he tallied 20 assists to six turnovers in a pair of victories.

While Jokic is resolutely his first look as a passer, he mixed in plenty other snappy, discerning reads to exploit all the eyeballs and bodies locked onto him. Or, more succinctly, he did what any star initiator must when engulfed. He did it for five consecutive games. By the end of those 240 minutes, he’d scaled to the summit of the NBA after years of lessons, patience, anguish, breakthroughs and every other moment dotted on a determined champion’s timeline.

As Denver rollicked to this ring, with Murray relishing a central role, the bewilderment of his zero All-Star appearances emerged and blossomed in curiosity. That arbitrary signifier is irrelevant to his impact and importance on winning, though. As his sixth season concludes, Murray stands atop of the league and is one of its best guards, regardless of any All-Star credentials. Much like his Mile High contemporaries, he’s grown his game every year, and it’s exactly why he and they are 2022-23 NBA champions — now and forever.

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