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Jamal Murray looked like he was headed toward a big outing Saturday in Los Angeles. The Nuggets third-year point guard started off the matinee game by connecting on three of four shots. He got a pull up from the right elbow to go down, nailed a 3 off the dribble when Avery Bradley went under the ball screen and hit another midrange J, this one in transition.
Murray scored nine points in the first quarter. But the rest of the way, his touch deserted him. Murray went 2 of 9 across the final three quarters as he finished with 18 points on 16 shots — another inefficient game from the player who was a trendy preseason pick to win Most Improved Player.
Murray has made strides as a defender and playmaker this season, but so far he’s underwhelmed in the area of the game he’s most known for: shooting. The Blue Arrow, who earned his nickname by drilling 113 3-pointers at Kentucky in 2015-16, which at the time was the second most by a freshman ever, is shooting 29.3 percent from long range this season. That’s the sixth-worst mark in the NBA among players who attempt at least four per game — and well below the 37.8 percent he shot from deep last year.
“I think you know he’ll come around, but to your point his shooting numbers this year are poor,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “They’re low. Whatever you want to call it. I think the one thing you do talk about is the quality of the shot. Making sure they’re shots that are good shots. Making sure they’re open or not open, whether it’s time and score, situation. Is it a shot that you work on?”
One such miscalculation occurred in the final seconds of the second quarter Saturday. The Nuggets were holding the ball for the last shot of the half. Murray didn’t let enough run off the clock before he clanked a 16-footer off the front rim. The Clippers rebounded the ball, rushed downcourt and got it to Tobias Harris, who was fouled on a 3-point attempt. Instead of going into the break down six, Denver trailed by nine.
That pull up was contested. Murray got plenty of clean looks over the course of the afternoon, though. This beautifully designed play gave him all sorts of room to cast off from the left wing. Murray barely grazed rim.
Murray shot 1 of 5 on on what the NBA considers “wide-open” 3-point attempts (when the closest defender is 6 or more feet away) in the game. He’s shooting 30.9 percent on 3.1 wide-open 3s per game on the season, which is down significantly from the 42.6 percent success rate he had on such shots last year.
“Just stay the course,” Murray said when asked how to get back on track.
Murray’s confidence is one of his defining attributes. For the second season in a row, he leads Denver in fourth-quarter scoring. Last week he caught fire and poured in 15 in the fourth against Toronto before going for 10 fourth-quarter points two nights later against Dallas.
“When he wakes up like that, there is no way you can stop him,” teammate Nikola Jokic said. “We just need to set him a good screen, and he is going to be wide open.”
Murray said he does not plan to make any radical changes. He’ll continue taking open 3s when they’re there — including in transition.
“It’s part of my game,” Murray said. “It’s one of my favorite shots. It’s a momentum changer. It’s the same thing as an open 3. That’s why I take it. Everybody wants me to shoot it. It hasn’t gone in the way I need it to, but that’s fine. It will change.”
Murray got off to a slow start last season before finding his rhythm. He shot 25.3 percent from 3 over his first 21 games of 2017-18. Over his final 61, he hit 41.3 percent on long-range attempts. As 2019 approaches, the Nuggets are hoping for a similar turnaround from their point guard with a picture-perfect stroke, who Malone acknowledged has played through a variety of bumps and bruises.
“He puts the time in,” Malone said. “As he gets healthy, he’ll start to get those numbers up where they should be.”