If you’re still harboring any doubts about what Jamal Murray could possibly have left in the tank after four overtimes, come closer. Larry Blunt wants to tell you a story.
Murray’s 16. He turns up at the Saint James tourney in Washington, D.C. with a broken finger. En route to the first game, Murray somehow manages to get that same broken finger slammed into a car door.
“He refused to not play,” says Blunt, who coached the Nuggets’ backcourt star in his high school salad days at Orangeville (Ontario) Prep. “Refused. It would’ve taken an act of God and then Congress to prevent him from playing.”
Murray’s 16, dribbling with nine good digits and a splint. He hits a game-winner from three-quarters court at the buzzer.
“If I had to go into a dark alley and I had to put my money into some guy finding a way to come out, I don’t think I want to be in a dark alley with him,” Blunt laughs. “I would be willing to bet everything I own on the fact he was going to get out of there.”
There have been darker alleys than Game 4 for the Nuggets Sunday against the Blazers, but few more desperate. Without Murray’s 34 points and nine rebounds late Friday night, the Nuggets don’t send Game 3 of the NBA’s Western Conference semis into overtime. And yet without Murray’s four turnovers, three coming in the extra periods, the Portland Trail Blazers probably don’t pull out a 140-137 four-OT victory, taking a 2-1 series lead.
“Lots to learn about that game,” Murray would say later. “I’ve got to be better.”
The kid who played through the broken finger is 22 now, still learning, still climbing, still battling. Despite a bum shoulder and a badly bruised thigh, some 10 games into his first NBA postseason, the 6-foot-4 Murray has bettered his regular-season averages in postseason scoring (20.5 points per game versus 18.2) and field-goal percentage (.444 versus .437).
But, for better or worse, we define our guards by the hearts they break on the biggest stages, by the blood the daggers leave behind. Dame waving the Thunder good-bye in a first round playoff series. Billups from half-court against the Nets in 2004. Iverson over Tyronn Lue in 2001. Kobe over Bruce Bowen in 2008. Jordan over everybody.
“Early on, I felt like he was maybe pushing the issue a little bit,” teammate Torrey Craig says of Murray. “But now he’s just settled down and he looks very comfortable out there.
“I feel like he figured it out. First playoffs, he’s still a young kid. He’s a great player at the same time. Great players figure it out. Great players always figure it out.”
Great players find a way to get the last word. One minute, Murray makes your heart dance. The next, he’s stomping on it. One minute, he’s draining step backs over 6-foot-11 Enes Kanter. The next, he’s fiddling with his shoe.
Lots to learn. Sometimes, the hard way.
“He was hesitating in Game 1 (against San Antonio) to take the mid-range shot they were giving him,” former NBA guard and current TNT analyst Jason Terry says of Murray’s postseason run. “But as you watch the film, you could see in Game 2, he was much more aggressive and assertive. And if you watch (Game 3 in Portland), it was the same thing: He came out and he knew what the defense was giving him, and make or miss, he took the shots that were presented.
“I think (he’s been) pretty good for a first-time playoff participant. In the games that he’s played well, they’ve won. In the games where he hasn’t shot the ball well, they’ve lost. Winning the first series (versus the Spurs) was huge, and a lot of that depended on his play.”
In the first three games of the Spurs series, Murray averaged 15.6 points, 2.0 assists and 2.0 per contest. The nadir was Game 3 at the AT&T Center, when San Antonio harassed him into just six points and four turnovers in the Spurs’ 118-108 victory, giving the 7 seed a 2-1 series lead.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone called Murray out after that one, and No. 27 took off. In the final four games the Nuggets’ star averaged 21.5 points, 5.8 assists and 1.4 turnovers. Denver went 3-1, eliminating the Spurs in Game 7 to clinch the franchise’s first postseason victory in a decade.
“He’s been amazing,” Kentucky coach John Calipari says of his former protégé. “I knew he’d be doing what he’s doing this fast, this early. And it’s just a joy to see.”
Calipari recalled visiting Murray in Charlotte a year or so ago, “when he was 0 for 13, couldn’t make a three to start the season.
“I just said, ‘Keep shooting the ball, are you out of your mind?’ Do you know how long the season is?’ And I think in that league, you’ve got to have some failure to make you deal with it, so you know it’s not the end of the world. And the playoffs, the good news is it’s not the NCAA Tournament, it’s not one-and-done, you’ve got plenty of opportunities to come back and get the next one.
“Playing San Antonio, it was the best thing for them. I thought Denver had the better team, but San Antonio had the mentality of, ‘We’re supposed to win it,’ and that made Denver and my guy have to be tough enough to say, ‘(Expletive) that, we’ll win.'”
Great players set a tone. The Nuggets are 5-1 in the postseason when Murray score 18 or more. When it’s 17 or fewer, they’re 0-4.
“I just know this,” Calipari says. “When he scores, and it doesn’t need to be 50 … (but) if he takes four shots, I don’t know if they can win.”
For Malone, it’s a fine line: If the Nuggets are to survive, Murray has to get his, by any means necessary. And yet the learning curve continues on the fly, especially in late-game situations when No. 27 is handling the rock. Especially when, with 19 seconds left in the third overtime Friday night, CJ McCollum badgers Murray into a turnover that sets up the Blazers’ game-tying bucket. Especially on the defensive end, where Portland made it a point to pick on him in Game 3 after Gary Harris fouled out.
“He takes his craft seriously. I take it seriously,” Murray’s father Roger says. “We don’t really listen to outside noise, to be honest with you. That doesn’t sway us. Basically, when I’m watching him, he knows when he has a bad game. He’s like, ‘OK, what can I do, how can I get better next time? And what can we do with more consistency?'”
Great players kick themselves in the backside when they need to turn a corner.
“It’s mentally, basically, the energy that you’re bringing, the style of play,” Roger says. “So when you bring that energy, it allows you to compete. And when you compete, then your craft shows. It’s the type of energy, the type of focus.”
Blunt, now an assistant coach at Drake, made a point to keep one eye on Game 2 of the Nuggets-Spurs series and one eye on his phone. It started as an evening when Murray couldn’t hit the broad side of two barns for three quarters, a night when the natives at the Pepsi Center — with the Nuggets already down 1-0 in the series — were getting restless.
“I was laughing with some guys on my team about it, if you read social media … and we checked, and it was bad,” Blunt recalls. “And then he played dang near perfect (in the fourth quarter).
“And I think that sums him up. He’s almost stubborn for greatness. He has that ability to just block out everything else that happens.”
Blunt had a term for it a few years back: Glitch mode. When the computer can’t miss, when you’re ready to throw your controller straight through a stinking wall.
“Whenever he was getting into Glitch mode, like, good luck,” Blunt laughs. “It was like a video-game glitch, it was like a cheat code. Jamal just could not do wrong when he got into that mode. “
Great players figure it out.
Great players always figure it out.
“I think the example of that broken finger just shows his fortitude,” Blunt says. “At this point in the season, no one’s fresh. He has that ability to really step up. It’s that old analogy of the alley. I’ll bet that he will do it.”