On tired, hobbled legs, Jamal Murray curled around an overtime screen as if making up for lost time.
For four games, Murray had been relegated to the team’s bloated cheering section, watching and waiting as his hamstring heeled. But on Saturday, given the green light to play, Murray made a triumphant arrival to the Orlando bubble.
Late in the second overtime, after the Nuggets had already coughed up two six-point leads to Utah, Murray barreled around the 6-foot-9 frame of Jerami Grant, cut back and snatched an inbounds pass from Nikola Jokic. With two dribbles and a Harden-esque stepback, Murray loaded for one more 3-pointer.
His shot ripped the net to give the Nuggets a 128-123 lead – and one they finally held despite the stubbornness of Jazz star Donovan Mitchell.
As Murray turned back up court, he looked and pointed. It wasn’t at some virtual fan, but instead at Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly, who’s one of the few team officials allowed in the bubble.
Can’t stop watching this look. Felt like it was the signature shot of the night. pic.twitter.com/9xR1NOJnYa
— Mike Singer (@msinger) August 9, 2020
It was a signature shot from a signature game and one that had Murray’s fingerprints all over it. Murray finished with 23 points, a career-high 12 rebounds and eight assists in 39 minutes on the court. It was his first actual NBA game in nearly five months, and he wasn’t supposed to play more than 22 minutes.
“Ended up playing 40,” Murray said with a smile. “Double overtime, first game back. It’s cool. I like challenges and it feels better now that we got the win.”
Murray’s gutsy game was a stark reminder of how invaluable he is to their playoff chances. Not only does he want the ball in clutch situations, but his dogged mentality is one the team thrives off of in games like Saturday’s.
Before Mitchell sent the game to the first overtime, Murray’s gamesmanship was undeniable. First he hit a driving, swerving layup past two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert to tie the game at 98. Next he hit a turnaround fadeaway to give the Nuggets a small cushion.
Finally, on what little legs he had left, he seized a defensive rebound, raced down the court, threw the ball behind his back and finished another bucket that should’ve buffered Denver’s lead. The point wasn’t that Mitchell undid all of Murray’s clutch work. It was simply that it had been done in the first place.
“That kind of reminds us of the potential of our team and why we’ve been able to win so many close games,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said of Murray.
Malone struggled with what to do with Murray, who prior to Saturday, had played 25 minutes in the team’s final scrimmage on July 27 but hadn’t played since out of concern for his hamstring.
“You want to win the game, and how do you balance winning the game and not putting guys at risk?” Malone said. “I kept on talking with Jamal throughout the game, he felt good, he wanted to stay. He was communicating that there were no issues with his injury.”
At the very end of the game, with the Nuggets up 134-132, Murray missed back-to-back free throws with 4.2 seconds left that would’ve sealed it.
“You know I’m tired when I miss two free throws at the end,” said Murray, a career 88% free-throw shooter. “It felt good (being back). It felt like it was something I needed.”
The story of the bubble Nuggets will ultimately be written by Murray, Nikola Jokic and the tantalizing emergence of rookie Michael Porter Jr. How those three co-exist will determine what kind of heights they can reach, both this year and beyond. That his hamstring felt good enough to play and the trio finally got meaningful time to gel was a far more important development than Saturday’s result.
And what to make of the team’s three remaining seeding games?
“We’ll take all the games we can get,” Murray said.