It’s not hyperbole to call it one of the more momentous shots of Jamal Murray’s life. With 7:03 left in the second quarter of Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Wednesday, Murray caught a desperation pass from Jeff Green on the left wing. The Denver Nuggets were on their heels, fumbling through another offensive possession, up against intense defense and a deafening crowd during an untenable stretch when the Miami Heat were starting to smell blood.
Only three seconds were left on the shot clock and Bam Adebayo was in Murray’s face. No matter the pressure, Murray didn’t hesitate. He took one quick escape dribble to his right, planted his left foot, sprang back behind the 3-point line, and fired up a stepback that, for almost anyone else in the NBA, could best be described as a prayer:
To Murray, the context wasn’t relevant. The jumper was instinctive. “As the shot clock was going down and I just got to my spot and just sunk it down,” Murray said. “Just a drill shot that I practiced basically my whole life.”
This is true. But now let’s add context just for fun. This was Game 3 of the NBA Finals, with the series tied, in a precarious spot, against a rabid defense. Nothing about it was routine, let alone for a player who had missed the last two postseasons with a torn ACL. “It was a really big moment. It was a big shot,” Aaron Gordon said. “We need him to step up and take and make those shots. It’s almost like [he] quieted the crowd and kind of slowed their momentum down a little bit. It was a huge shot.”
Nuggets coach Michael Malone agreed. “Jamal, he’s a guy that thrives, lives, and excels in the moment,” he said. “Never afraid of it. You can’t say that for a lot of players.”
In what ended as a magical 34-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist triple-double, that first-half 3-pointer signaled that Murray might be on to something special. (Speaking of special, Nikola Jokic and Murray registered the first game in NBA history, regular season or playoffs, when two teammates had 30-point triple-doubles.)
After a disappointing Game 2 loss in which he was a minus defender and scored only 18 points, Murray wore several hats in the Nuggets’ 109-94 Game 3 win—offensive conductor, pick-and-roll maestro, timely run stopper, guy-who-guarded-Jimmy-Butler-and-did-not-do-a-terrible-job—and all of them fit. He was efficient (12-for-22 from the floor, 3-for-6 from behind the arc, and 7-for-8 from the free throw line), opportunistic, and flashy, including a comical “Tier 3” layup over Adebayo in the fourth quarter that would’ve made LeBron James proud …
… and this 3 in the middle of the floor off a dribble handoff with Jokic that caught Adebayo flat-footed on a switch.
Murray spent stretches manipulating Miami’s defense, shifting defenders with his eyes or a subtle shoulder fake. The hesitation dribble was filthy. The floater game was untouchable. The ability to create separation was on point. The extra effort—particularly on one play when he beat Butler to his own missed shot, then put it back for a layup—was the best it’s been in this series.
As a whole, his execution wasn’t flawless. Then again, that’s a high bar when the Heat lock into a game plan that revolves around slowing you down. Murray was blitzed six times in Game 3, the most in any game during these playoffs. Murray committed seven turnovers and, at times, struggled to deal with Miami’s pressure. But he also found ways to beat it.
“[Jamal] had two guys on him a lot, and he didn’t fight it,” Malone said. “I think early in the playoffs there were games where he was getting attention and he was trying to make, like, the home run play maybe at times. But for him tonight to come off—I got two guys on me? I’m just going to find Nikola in the pocket or Christian Braun cutting, whatever it may be.”
Murray flipped Miami’s aggressive schemes on their head. When Jokic was the screener, he strung the defender out just long enough to get his partner in crime an advantage (keep an eye on Bam’s head during the second play):
You know you’re doing something right when an opponent is dead-set on making sure you don’t get a look at the basket … while your teammate is a two-time MVP who finished with 32 points, 21 rebounds, and 10 assists.
“Jamal is going to attract so much attention, but usually it’s when Nikola’s off [the ball] because if you put two on the ball, Jamal, and he finds Nikola in the pocket, something good is usually going to happen,” Malone said. “That’s the type of game that Jamal was having, and he adjusted to how he was being guarded, which is what you need from your starting point guard.”
Now is a pretty good time to stop to remind everyone reading this that Murray has never made an All-Star team. After watching his Game 3 performance, that sentence almost devalues the accomplishment: If this dude hasn’t done it, how meaningful can the distinction actually be? I’m being facetious, but also, kind of serious!
Murray was the difference in Game 3, but he’s been a force all postseason. Here’s a few basic numbers from his 18-game run: 27.4 points, 6.8 assists, and 5.7 rebounds per game, while making 39.6 percent of his 3s and over half his pull-up 2s. Forget about the All-Star Game, this is a run some All-NBA guards will never even experience. He’s taking over in basketball’s biggest games, under the brightest possible lights, in the harshest environments, with unimaginably high stakes, maximum pressure, and all the unanalyzable elements that make what Murray is doing so freaking hard.
Nothing about that stepback 3 over Adebayo in the second quarter looked easy. It was drilled under duress at a knee-shaking juncture. But if Murray showed anything in Game 3—or in the previous three rounds, for that matter—it’s that he isn’t fazed by whatever challenge is placed in front of him. Win or lose this series, Murray moves like a champion.