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"This is Murray Mentality": The legend of Jamal Murray continues to grow

Harrison Wind Avatar
February 11, 2020

Another chapter in the legend of Jamal Murray was written Monday night.

Murray and the Nuggets trudged to the locker room at halftime trailing the Spurs 67-53. Heads were down, spirits were low and Murray was struggling big time. He shot just 1 of 5 from the field for three points over the first two quarters and handed out four assists but turned the ball over twice. Even worse, Murray was having trouble making it up the floor by the time the second-quarter buzzer sounded.

Murray, who returned to action only seven days ago following a 10-game absence due to an ankle injury, appeared to re-injure his ankle with 6:11 remaining in the first quarter. He subbed out shortly after and jogged straight back to Denver’s locker room with a team trainer only to return to the Nuggets’ bench a few minutes later. He limped up and down the floor for the rest of the half.

In the Nuggets’ training room during the halftime break Murray wasn’t sure if he was going to return for the second half, but a familiar voice provided the words of encouragement he needed to hear.

“Tonight, the first half didn’t go my way and I got banged up,” Murray said. “I just called my dad at half and kind of regrouped and got it back together. And we brought that energy and the bench unit came in did a great job getting back into the game.”

Murray has phoned his father, Roger, during halftime before and the two “talked things out” as Denver’s point guard put it postgame. Roger trained his son from an early age on how to overcome adverse conditions and growing up in Kitchener, Ontario had a young Jamal shoot 3-pointers in the snow shortly after he held a deep-knee squat for 12 minutes with a cup of boiling hot tea balanced on his thigh.

Murray came out guns-blazing in the second half seemingly unaffected by the ankle injury that hindered his performance just 15 minutes earlier. He tallied 23 points over the final two quarters as the Nuggets roared back from a 23-point deficit midway through the third to edge the Spurs 127-120.

“The show that Jamal put on on the offensive end in the second half was incredible,” Michael Malone said after his team improved to 38-16 on the season, the Nuggets’ best record through 54 games in franchise history.

While Murray finished Denver’s second-half rally, Paul Millsap started it. On his 35th birthday, Millsap, who returned to the Nuggets’ lineup Saturday in Phoenix after spending nearly a month sidelined due to a knee injury, chipped in 22 points off the bench and converted on four of his five 3-point attempts to go with seven rebounds, two steals and a block. His effort, especially on the defensive end of the floor was contagious, as Millsap came up with one momentum-turning defensive and then offensive play after another in the third before Murray closed out San Antonio with 14 fourth-quarter points.

“I just found my shot,” Murray said. “Me and Joker were in a great rhythm, not forcing anything. We were both getting to our spots. Even what you guys call tough shots, those are shots we work on night in and night out and we were able to get the job done. But it’s not just one guy you know. It’s not just two guys. We got it done defensively. That third quarter got the momentum. We were down four at the end of the third and we took over in the fourth.”

The Nuggets also got a strong outing from Nikola Jokic, who fresh off his first Western Conference Player of the Week award this season finished with 19 points, eight rebounds and 13 assists. Torrey Craig was superb too, tallying 11 points to go with seven rebounds, three of which came on the offensive glass. Monte Morris chipped in 16 points along with four assists off Denver’s bench while newcomer Jordan McRae, who made his Nuggets debut Monday, converted on two triples of his own.

Gary Harris, who had missed his last 10 3-pointers heading into Denver’s first matchup of the season against San Antonio, sunk two of his three attempts from beyond the arc, one of which pushed the Nuggets’ lead from one to four points with 4:23 left in the fourth. Maybe it’s a sign that Harris is taking steps towards breaking out of a season-long offensive slump. The two-guard is shooting just 30% from 3-point range this year.

“The thing I loved about it, make or miss there was no hesitation,” Malone said about Harris’ clutch 3. “There was great ball movement. The ball went to the corner, I think Jerami was the guy who passed it to him right in front of our bench. Gary, just to see him catch and shoot without any hesitation leads me to believe that he is definitely heading in the right direction.”

The same could be said for Murray, who besides Monday’s first half has been playing arguably his best basketball of the season as of late. Since Murray returned from injury he’s averaging 28.3 points on 58.9% shooting from the field and 48.4% from 3-point range, 2.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists across four games, all of which have been Nuggets wins.

After his first game back in the lineup, a 127-99 win over the Trail Blazers last Tuesday, Murray said that his time away from the court allowed him to refocus and recalibrate his game and watch more film. He noted that aspects of how the Nuggets play, including the pace they need to be operating at in the half-court and the types of looks Denver should be seeking out in transition were more noticeable to him while observing from the sideline.

The results speak for themselves. Murray is letting the game come to him now. He’s not forcing too many shots on the offensive end and is taking what the defense gives him. The renewed mentality was evident in Phoenix on Saturday where Murray had one of the most efficient offensive outings of his career, registering 36 points on 14 of 17 shooting from the field and a near-perfect 6 of 8 from 3-point range.

From across the Nuggets’ locker room, Millsap took notice of how Murray approached his time away from the court.

“For me it was kind of a blessing in disguise,” Millsap said, referencing how his own time away from the floor impacted him in a similar way. “I was able to work on a lot of things that I felt like I needed to work on, certain things I needed to get better at, from leadership, to my shot, to my body. You’ve just got to be aware of that stuff, use the time wisely. I think he used his time wisely when he was injured and I think I used my time wisely.”

Dressed in a black hoodie emblazoned with his personal logo, an arrow slicing through the middle of his initials, along with a necklace bearing the same trademark, Murray said he wanted to gut out Monday’s second half in order to live up to his reputation of persevering through injuries that he’s established over his career.

“I was hurting a lot so it was one of those things where I play through so much pain but sometimes it’s just like I don’t even want to play through pain anymore. Let me just sit it out. But I wore this today,” Murray said while looking down at his hoodie. “And I didn’t want to hinder my own name.”

“This is Murray Mentality right here. I pride myself on playing with pain.”

An ode to the late Kobe Bryant’s ‘Mamba Mentality’? Perhaps. Bryant defined Mamba Mentality in 2011 as “a constant quest to find answers. It’s that infinite curiosity to want to be better, to figure things out. Mamba Mentality is you’re going, you’re competing, you’re not worried about the end result.”

“You’re not worried about what people may say. You’re not worried about disappointing others. You’re not worried about any of that, you’re just focused on being in the moment. That’s what Mamba Mentality truly is.”

Bryant was one of Murray’s basketball heroes after all. Murray attended the Mamba Sports Academy, a multi-day, invite-only camp hosted by Bryant in mid-August in Los Angeles, last summer and the 22-year-old said earlier this season that he still was exchanging texts with Bryant and picking his brain about the game in the months that followed. Murray has also remarked before about how much he looks up to the competitive spirit Bryant played with.

It was impossible not to draw parallels between Murray’s heroics Monday and his second-half performance in Game 2 of the Nuggets’ first round series against these same Spurs last April. Already down 0-1 in the series, Denver trailed by 10 points at the half at home in Game 2 but closed to within seven heading to the fourth. After shooting 0-8 from the floor over the first three quarters Murray went ballistic in the fourth, tallying 21 points on 8 of 9 shooting over the final 12 minutes of regulation.

He saved Denver’s season that night. Heading to San Antonio down 0-2 in the series would have been a death sentence for these Nuggets in what was a playoff debut for many on Denver’s roster. On Monday Murray was in a similar rhythm.

What does it feel like to be in that type of zone?

“It feels great,” Murray said. “I don’t really see who’s guarding me, what coverage they’re in, it doesn’t really matter. I just make it work and the confidence is at an all-time high.”

Clearly still in pain, Murray limped around the Nuggets’ locker room late Monday night with his limbs wrapped in four separate ice bags, one covering each of his knees and ankles. How willing he is to play through pain and injuries that would sideline some of his peers is remarkable and inspiring. It’s one of the fourth-year pro’s defining qualities and his deep-seated passion for the game — something that was evident with every painful grimace that spread across Murray’s face Monday —  is rooted in a desire to keep pushing to be the best at what he does.

With the All-Star break just a couple days away, he’s clearly in need of some time off to recover from his bad ankle sprain suffered nearly a month ago against the Charlotte Hornets that Murray said last week is still painful to play on it. But there’s a showdown with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers looming on Wednesday, a matchup that will pit the two teams currently atop the Western Conference standings against one another.

Murray has no plans to sit that one out.

“Yeah, I’m playing,” Murray said. “I’m playing.”

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