DENVER (AP) — The highlight of Game 1 for Jamal Murray came when he dribbled into the paint, put all his weight on his surgically repaired left knee, made a full clockwise turn, then faded away and swished a mid-range jumper.
The Kitchener, Ont. native's most important contribution to Denver’s first win in the franchise's first appearance in the NBA Finals — well, take your pick.
Murray's 26-point, 10-assist night in the 104-93 win over Miami on Thursday almost seemed incidental for a team that features a player averaging a triple-double in these playoffs in Nikola Jokic, a one-of-a-kind big man who has the skills to make every player on the roster a threat.
And yet, anybody following the Nuggets for a while knows it has been Murray's return to full health — and his return to the playoffs for the first time in three seasons — that has been a catalyst in the run they're on.
“He's a three-level scorer. He can shoot the 3. He can pull up and get to the rim,” said Heat guard Haywood Highsmith, describing the gruelling challenge of trying to slow Murray. “He’s a crafty player, has a good handle. He’s in good condition.”
All those points and assists aside, it's arguable Murray's most important contribution in this game came during a 106-second stretch after Miami had cut a 24-point deficit to 10. It's somewhat remarkable — and oh-so typical of the impact the seventh-year guard out of Kentucky can have on a game — that during those 106 seconds, Murray didn't record a single stat.
It started at the 9:02 mark of the fourth quarter when he made a snap throw to Jokic, which loosened the Heat defence and allowed Jokic to find Jeff Green for an uncontested layup.
A few empty possessions later, Murray found a sliver of open space in the middle to hit Jokic, who missed the easy layup but got fouled and made both free throws.
The possession after that, Murray scooped up the ball after Bruce Brown picked Highsmith's pocket. Murray wove down court, dribbled around his back, through his legs, then flipped it to Michael Porter Jr. who, with the court now wide open, found Jokic for a layup.
Denver's lead was back to 16.
“Loved his pace tonight, just the pace that he played all night long,” Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon said. “The tempo that he played at, controlling the game and controlling the flow of the game was great.”
For the record, Murray's turnaround fadeaway over Highsmith — the jumper of the night — came with 6:26 left to re-raise the Denver lead to 16 and all but put to rest any doubt about the outcome.
It also served as yet another reminder that if they Heat are going to have any chance of containing the Nuggets over the rest of this series, they'll have to account for the player who has never made an All-Star game and never received an MVP vote but is every bit as key to Denver's success as the player who has, Jokic.
“He’s a dynamic scorer. He poses threats in different ways and he’s relentless,” said Miami guard Gabe Vincent. “It will be a tall task, and we’ll continue to work at it.”
Murray went down in a game at Golden State and tore up his knee late in the 2020-21 season, an injury that forced him to miss the ‘21 playoffs and all of last year. Even with Jokic winning the MVP in both of those seasons, the Nuggets got swept out of the ’21 conference semifinals by the Suns and beaten in five by the Warriors in the first round in '22.
By then, the phrase “Bubble Murray” — an homage to his breakthrough during the 2020 playoffs in the COVID bubble in Orlando — was becoming popular. He has grown tired of that label, and of the question of whether “Bubble Murray” would ever show up again once he returned to full health.
He has averaged 27.6 points and 6.2 assists over 16 playoff games this year, surpassing his regular-season numbers by 7.6 and 1.4. Counting 2019 and 2020, Murray has increased his scoring by 33% and his assists by 13% in the post-season. He is, in short, building a reputation as one of those special players who come up biggest when the lights are brightest.
True to form, Murray was more than happy to spread the credit around after the Nuggets made it 1-0 as a franchise in the NBA Finals.
“It's hard to guard everybody, instead of just one or two guys,” Murray said. “I think tonight was just a great example of how it could be anybody’s night and anybody’s quarter, maybe not your quarter. That’s just Nuggets basketball.”
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Eddie Pells, The Associated Press