Only Jamal Murray would have the audacity to try that.
In the midst of a sub-par shooting night, coming off a two-game stretch where he shot 8-28 from the floor, in the first half of his first season back after missing 18 months recovering from a torn ACL, he tried that.
With the game on the line and the Nuggets starting a four-game losing streak dead in the eyes, Murray waved off Nikola Jokic, ISO’d against the taller Jerami Grant on the left wing, shook his former teammate with a nasty right-to-left cross-over, stepped back, and sunk the Nuggets’ shot of the year. It was as important of a game-winner as anyone has sunk 25 games into a season.
Murray has always come with that kind of audacity. The kid from Kitchener, Ontario still walks around with a permanent chip on his shoulder because he doesn’t think hoopers from Canada get the respect they deserve. He’s still the same 20-year-old who in his second NBA season broke Steven Adams’ ankles and then publicly forecasted to the rest of the league that Adams wouldn’t be the last defender that he’d send to the ground after a nasty crossover. Deep down, he’s still the same guy who made Kyrie Irving chuck a basketball into the stands because he tried for 50 points at the end of a blowout win. He’s still the same game-changer that went berserk in the bubble.
But we all needed a reminder that Murray was still that dude — he might have needed it too — and we got one in the fourth quarter in Portland in the Nuggets’ 121-120 win. That’s why this was such an important shot. We needed it because Murray hasn’t been that guy for much of this season, even though that’s been expected and hardly a surprise. Murray is supposed to struggle in his first season back from a knee injury like that. It’s supposed to be a campaign filled with countless highs and lows. His game, his shot, his pick-and-roll game, it’s all been up-and-down. But recently, Murray had lost that swagger too. He had lost his edge. Even throughout much of Thursday night’s win, Murray didn’t look himself.
That no-doubt step-back 3 was so Jamal Murray though. The snarl to the courtside Blazers fans, the strut along the sideline and back to the Nuggets’ huddle, the calm, cool, and collected demeanor before and after the game-winner, that was all vintage Murray.
It was a crucial shot for every party involved. Denver was that close to dropping its fourth-straight game. Despite the Nuggets’ record and standing in the upper-Western Conference, the vibes would have been at a season-low. Denver only lost four games in a row once last season. It came during a six-game slide that Jokic missed most of due to a wrist injury.
It’s underrated what this type of shot can do for someone in Murray’s position too. If you look at his numbers this season, you’d probably think that Murray is closer to being back than he actually is. His per-36 scoring averages this year are nearly identical to his scoring numbers from the 2020-21 season. Murray’s averaging around the same number of rebounds and slightly more assists, per 36 minutes, than he did the last time he was healthy. His shooting percentages are down, but other than that, at least statistically Murray, looks back.
The eye test doesn’t support that argument though. It’s been clear that Murray still doesn’t have the game-to-game rhythm that he enjoys when fully locked in. The two-man chemistry with Jokic is there, but it’s not at the elite level that it’s been at in year’s past. His vision gets cloudy at times, and Murray had some truly dreadful turnovers Thursday. He still needs to get his legs fully back under him too. But again, it’s all been expected. A player’s first season back from an ACL is always rocky. It’s just what Murray’s navigating right now.
But a shot like this can provide a real jolt of energy. It can lock you in. It can lift the confidence of someone like Murray, whose self-belief waxed and waned throughout the first three quarters against the Blazers.
The shot, the win, that feeling, they’re all events and emotions that signal Murray is becoming himself again. It’s a sign of what could be to come and a peak at the light at the end of this tunnel. Soon, Murray will be all the way back. Soon, he’ll be hoisting shots like this throughout an entire 48-minute game. He’ll be making them too. In due time, he’ll carry this team again with Jokic. He’ll eventually be the fiery leader, once again, that this team desperately needs.
This game-winner put Murray one step closer to becoming that player again.