Why Jamal Murray Is the Breakout Performer of the Year

Jamal Murray helped lead the Nuggets to the brink of the NBA Finals, but what Murray stood for as a citizen was even more impactful.
Author:
Publish date:

There’s a moment in the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the 2020 Western Conference finals when Nuggets guard Jamal Murray pulls off, frankly, one of the most absurd shots in NBA history. Some shots in the NBA are the type people would seemingly only ever attempt in a pickup game with friends. Others are the type usually only reserved for video games. Murray’s shot was neither. No pickup player is this coordinated. And even video games are ultimately limited in their animations.

Denver is trailing the game 97–92 and the series 2–1. There’s a hair over six minutes left to play. Murray, who had just hit a shot over Anthony Davis the previous trip down the floor, is driving to his right on Rajon Rondo. Murray spins left, jumps, and with Rondo draped over his right arm, Murray—a right-handed shooter—continues fading left and somehow uncorks a left-handed, semi-fading runner to cut the score to three. The Nuggets would eventually lose this game down the stretch. But ask yourself: How many other shots do you remember from this series?

YiR_MURRAY

Murray is Sports Illustrated’s 2020 Breakout Player of the Year. His postseason performance in the NBA’s Orlando bubble remains one of the most memorable and enduring storylines from the sport’s sci-fi experiment. Murray has long been a talented and ignitable scorer. During the regular season for Denver last year, he averaged a respectable 18.5 points, 4.0 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game. He improved all of those numbers in the playoffs, recording 26.5 points, 6.6 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game as helped lead the Nuggets to the brink of the NBA Finals.

Murray’s magic started in the first round. With Denver trailing the Jazz 2–1, the former No. 7 pick scored 50 points in Game 4, which ultimately ended in a loss. Emboldened by his scoring barrage and with his team’s back against the wall, Murray followed up his 50-point night with 42 in Game 5 and another 50 in Game 6.

In that legendary three-game stretch, Murray became the first player since Michael Jordan to score at least 40 in three straight playoff games. His Game 6 performance was the first time someone scored 50 points on at least 70% shooting since Charles Barkley in 1994. He also became only the third player to score 50 points in an elimination game, joining Wilt Chamberlain and Sleepy Floyd. In Games 4–6 against Utah, Murray scored 142 points on 64.2% shooting, including a blistering 62.8% from three.

The Nuggets trailed 3–1 in their second-round series against the Clippers as well, and after forcing a Game 7, Murray put up yet another classic performance. He thoroughly outplayed both Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, two multiple-time All-Stars with years of playoff experience, the latter of whom had two Finals MVP trophies waiting for him at home. In the winner-take-all matchup, Murray dropped 40 points, adding five assists and four rebounds for good measure. Denver won the game running away. And Murray’s 40 were 16 more than Leonard and George had combined.

When Denver’s run finally came to a halt in the West finals, it was in large part because LeBron James himself took on the task of slowing Murray down. James described his opponent as “special,” while Lakers coach Frank Vogel admitted nothing his team was doing against Murray worked until he asked arguably the greatest player ever to guard him.

“When you look at it, Jamal Murray, how he’s played in these 17 playoff games, for a guy that has never been an All-Star, understandably so, is really remarkable,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said at the end of the run. “For him to take advantage of this stage ... I don’t think [finding a player who wants to be coached hard] is too rare, but I think it speaks to Jamal’s desire to be not a good player, not an All-Star, but a superstar.”

That last line from Malone is the most illuminating. Murray has yet to make an All-Star team in his brief career. Yet when the stakes were their highest, he performed at the level of an all-timer against some of the best competition in the league. In Round 1, his success came at the expense of two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and up-and-coming star Donovan Mitchell. In Round 2, Murray got the best of George and Leonard, two of the most feared wing defenders in the NBA who joined forces to create a team with immediate championship aspirations. And in Round 3, Murray credibly went toe-to-toe with Hall of Fame talents in LeBron and AD.

And for all the talk of what he did on the court, what Murray stood for as a citizen was even more impactful. In his epic Game 6 against Utah, Murray wore shoes with the faces of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on them, honoring the two victims of police brutality and systemic racism. After the game, after he had just scored 50 points to save his team’s season, Murray fought back tears to remind everyone there was something much bigger at play than just his individual performance.

“In life you find things that hold value to you, and things to fight for,” an emotional Murray said that day. “We found something we’re fighting for as the NBA, as a collective unit … and I use these shoes as a symbol to keep fighting all around the world. They give me a lot of power to keep fighting.”

“Even though these people are gone,” Murray went on to say. “They give me life. They give me my strength.”

As Murray walked back to the locker room from his postgame interview, his emotions seemed to finally get the best of him, as he stopped in his tracks and collapsed to the floor. Murray gave everything he had in his body, all of his physical and emotional strength to continuously bring the Nuggets back from the brink during the playoffs. And he did so with the awareness to realize he could use his platform for something above himself. With his incredible stretch of play, Murray didn’t simply break out. He transcended.