Earlier this year, I talked to former Denver Nuggets coach George Karl about the Warriors-Nuggets 2013 first-round playoff series. In that series, Karl said he "saw Stephen Curry going from being a really good player to becoming a star right in front of us."
"To see that at ground level, from the bench, you could see it in his eyes," Karl told CBS Sports. "When he was coming down the court with the ball in his hands, he was locked, man. He was in it. You don't see that often, you know, where a guy is making that superstar leap right in the moment. You see guys who are already there, or guys you know are coming. But man, he just went to another level [in that series]."
I'm not sitting on the bench inside the Orlando bubble, but I have to imagine Jamal Murray has a similar look on his face right now. After Murray hung 50 points against the Jazz to force Game 7 in their first-round series, I wrote that he wasn't so much making the proverbial leap as he was affirming what everyone should've long known about him, which is that he's the most lethal of shotmaking weapons when he gets it going.
I still believe that. None of what Murray is doing is surprising me. Unlike Curry, who was in his first postseason in 2013, Murray done this playoff dance. He had some spectacular games and clutch moments in last year's playoffs, leading the Nuggets to within a single win of the conference finals. He's already played in four Game 7s, winning three of them. The most points Curry put up in those 2013 playoffs was 44 against San Antonio. Murray has put up a 50 piece. Twice.
Don't get it twisted: I'm not saying Murray is anywhere near the player Curry is or even that he will be in the future. What I am saying is that at this point in time, even if you want to say it's relative, Murray is making an even bigger postseason -- shall we say -- splash.
But for all Murray has done to this point, what he did in Game 3 against the Lakers on Tuesday was, for him, uncharted territory: 28 points on 10-of-17 shooting, including 4 of 8 from three, to go with 12 assists and eight rebounds in leading the Nuggets to 114-106 win cutting the Lakers' lead in this series to 2-1 heading into Game 4 on Thursday. This is the conference finals, a stage Murray hasn't stood on until now. This is LeBron James on the other side. And Murray is going toe to toe.
I know we're starting to take these back-against-the-wall Nuggets victories in stride, but we shouldn't. This is wild what they are doing. In the aforementioned 2013 playoffs, the Warriors dropped a pair of heartbreaking Game 1s -- first to the Nuggets in the first round, then to the Spurs in the second round, both on buzzer-beaters like the one that Anthony Davis sunk into Denver's heart in Game 2 on Sunday, but you knew those Warriors were for real when they bounced back to win both Game 2s, on the road, in each of those series.
Denver isn't doing it in road environments, but to come back from 3-1 deficits in two consecutive series, and now to take this must-win Game 3 from the Lakers, I don't know that I've ever seen anything like this. Those Warriors, for all their fun, met their match vs. San Antonio in the second round. Even beating the Nuggets that season, who were playing without Danilo Gallinari, while Kenneth Faried and Ty Lawson were both nursing ankle injuries, wasn't as big an upset as a 6-3 series usually suggests.
But these Nuggets weren't supposed to have any chance against the Clippers, let alone after falling in a 3-1 hole. Now to come back and win this Game 3 vs. the Lakers after dropping Game 2 in such dispiriting fashion? It's incredible. That would crush most teams. But Denver just keeps playing, and it has a lot to do wit Murray.
Yes, Jokic is the top dog. Yes Jerami Grant was spectacular on Tuesday. The Nuggets are deep and together and have a core that has been together for four years now. That affords a level of continuity not often found in today's musical chairs NBA. Still, Murray is the guy we're all starting to depend on in the biggest moments, and he's doing it against some of the best defenses and individual defenders in the league.
Sure, 28 points looks rather pedestrian next to some of the video-game lines Murray has put up this postseason. But let me tell you, these were gut-check buckets down the stretch. The Nuggets had let a 20-point lead dwindle to three with five minutes and change remaining in the game. That is, by the NBA's statistical definition, clutch time, the final five minutes of a five-point game.
By the time it was under three minutes, Denver was still clinging to a four-point lead. The Lakers, who had forced a turnover on six straight possessions at one point, were one Kentavious Caldwell-Pope rimmed-out 3-pointer from tying the game, and the Nuggets were stuck in mud offensively. Nobody was moving. The ball was stagnant. This is when you need a star to create something out of nothing for one final push to close out the game, and on cue, Murray did this with 2:17 to play.
That stretched Denver's lead to seven, and it felt like a hit of oxygen to stave off an asthma attack.
One possession later, Murray did this:
That was Murray's career-high 12th assist of the game. It was classic Murray, a last-instant dish when he's about to be caught in the air with nowhere to go, but he pulls these off because he's always in attack mode as a scorer. His ability to leverage the attention that scoring draws to make these kinds of plays for his teammates is the biggest part of this "leap" he's made. Now he can beat you even when he's not scorching hot.
Finally, with under a minute to play, Murray put the nail in the Lakers' coffin with this quick-trigger 30-footer:
If that isn't a Steph Curry heat check shot, I don't know what is. This man Murray has indeed gone to another level, if only because he's doing what we always knew he could do at a stage of the playoffs he's never experienced. Absolutely nothing fazes this guy. You get the distinct impression he's always known he was special. Now everybody else is figuring it out, too.