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Nikola Jokic Creates Space on Offense. Jamal Murray Fills It.

The interplay between Jokic’s eagerness to facilitate and Murray’s unbridled confidence has the Nuggets one win away from the conference finals

AP Images/Ringer illustration

When the Phoenix Suns elect to guard Nikola Jokic with a single, overmatched defender, they aren’t testing the scoring ability of the two-time MVP. They’re testing his stomach for it—and how often an eager playmaker will go against his own nature. There are times when Jokic treats it as a chore to walk Deandre Ayton down to the block for a baby hook. There are others when he seems to look for any reason not to take an open jumper; a hard-fought Game 3 finally got away from the Nuggets last week when Jokic, on several possessions down the stretch, passed up easy looks from the perimeter to drive into traffic, clear space, and flip the ball back to Jamal Murray.

After the game, Jokic explained that he thought Denver had been settling for too many 3s at the time—that he was trying to make something happen off the dribble instead. He also spoke, inadvertently, to the dynamic that drives the top-seeded Nuggets:

“I think Jamal is a better shooter than me,” Jokic said plainly.

During this second-round series against Phoenix, Jokic has set Denver’s all-time playoff record with 53 points in a game and passed Wilt Chamberlain for the most playoff triple-doubles ever recorded by a center. As sensational as Devin Booker has been in this matchup, Jokic has outscored him in fewer minutes while pushing Denver to a 3-2 series lead. Yet at several points in this postseason run, Jokic has referred to Murray—his partner in a positively electric two-man game—as the Nuggets’ best player.

Whether the position-defying center believes that claim matters less than the fact that he usually plays like he does. Even while upping his shot attempts dramatically from the regular season, Jokic has often stepped aside in this series to let Murray cook. That can lead to some confusing sequences in which Murray jab steps his way through the shot clock while one of the most wildly efficient players in history stands off to the side. It doesn’t quite add up, on a points per possession level, yet it makes all the sense in the world. A proper costar for Jokic can only be a hunter. When a superstar’s driving instinct is to make space for others, someone has to fill it. When an all-time great player has to be coaxed into dominating as a scorer, his most natural counterpart is a fire starter who never needs convincing.

“Nikola never forces anything,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said after his team’s Game 5 win. “He’s a guy that literally will just read the game and just take what the game offers.”

There’s a time to read the game, and there’s a time to make a statement. Murray has always understood that implicitly, chasing high-pressure buckets in huge moments without the slightest hesitation. His shot selection may be debatable at times, but his disposition isn’t. “I know a lot of guys are pretty good in the regular season,” Malone noted earlier in the playoffs. “But when the stage is at its biggest, Jamal seems to step up and perform.”

The blessing and curse of Murray’s game is that he plays like what Jokic says he is. This is what happens when a streak scorer has the unbridled freedom of a franchise player. His game feeds on that confidence, and the Nuggets feed off him. Playoff basketball is a unique challenge for reasons that go beyond the pace, physicality, or specificity of adjustments. It’s an inherently more emotional game; the most talented players in the world fall victim to the moment as often as they do to the opposing team’s coverage. Making a deep run means having players who can ride the waves of feeling unbeatable at 2-0 and frustrated at 2-2. Better yet: It means having a player like Murray, who can go into a pivotal Game 5 and make waves of his own.

Suns reserve Landry Shamet has made it his mission to hound Murray in this series, and for stretches of Games 4 and 5, he succeeded—bumping and nudging the Nuggets guard out of his natural rhythm. Murray, in kind, made it his mission to stir shit up. After an uncalled foul early in the third quarter, Murray grabbed Shamet by the shoulder in transition. A few possessions of escalating contact seemed to give Murray the focus he needed. He took a handoff from Jokic on the right wing and waltzed past Shamet to the rim for a layup. Then Denver ran the same play again, and Murray took the same handoff and shrugged off the slighter guard for another layup—with the foul—and made a point to tell him all about it:

“I’m just trying to get myself going sometimes,” Murray said. “I don’t know who all here has watched me play before. Sometimes I just need a little energy boost to myself. Then once I’m in attack mode, it kind of changes the game.”

That sequence was part of a game-turning run in which Jokic screened for Murray, Murray screened for Jokic, and Denver’s two best players outscored Phoenix 14-4 all by themselves. The Suns never recovered; what had been a break-even game in the first half turned into a runaway win for the Nuggets, with the momentum of the game following Murray’s swagger. In a way, the contradiction of the Jokic-Murray dynamic is the engine behind everything the Nuggets do. Murray will always have a line to walk in pressing and pulling back, scoring and setting the table. “I know the game’s gonna come,” Murray said. “I’m not trying to force it.” But winning teams need some players who understand their limits and others who don’t. A version of Murray who colors only inside the lines wouldn’t be nearly as valuable as the daring, cagey one who will suit up for Denver on Thursday with the series on the line.

“He rises to the moment,” Jokic said. And if Murray stopped short of every shot he shouldn’t take, he never would.

When Denver’s offense hits a wall, some part of Jokic’s skill set offers a solution. He can pull an opposing big away from the basket with his shooting, expose a defender napping on the weak side with a perfect pass, and hammer anyone who tries to guard him in the post. He is a living, breathing adjustment. And every time Jokic makes a change, Murray makes the corresponding one—revolving around the 7-footer no matter where he goes on the floor or how he operates. A true center who slings passes like a guard would be valuable in any context. One who plays alongside a guard who can go to work in the post or roll off a screen to make plays is especially so. Basketball anomalies tend to find each other.

“Nikola’s a great player,” Malone said earlier in Denver’s run. “A two-time MVP. … But you can’t do it alone in this business. You need help. And we understand the last time Jamal Murray played in the playoffs, down in Orlando, what he was capable of.”

That run in the bubble was a showcase of Murray in his purest form—dangerous, unleashed, and absolutely vibrating with confidence. He was the only player in Nuggets history to score 50 points in a playoff game until Jokic snapped that record last week, and some of his teammates think Murray is even better now. Murray can be guilty of holding the ball too long when the defense tilts his way or of muting the full symphony of the Nuggets’ motion offense in favor of simpler isos and pick-and-rolls. Yet when all the beautiful, well-drawn offense bogs down, the Nuggets rely on those shots as a lifeline. When Jokic gets shy, Murray can be the best game in town. At some point in the playoffs, every contender resorts to funneling its offense through its best player, over and over again. What makes Jokic special is that he believes that the best player isn’t always him. What makes Murray special is that, when those moments come, he can prove his teammate right.