Jamal Murray didn’t drive to the basket for his final points in the Nuggets’ statement 115-107 win over the Celtics on Monday, he blitzed. He licked the entire Boston defense on the way to the rim, first bodying Marcus Smart and out-positioning Al Horford to catch the inbound pass, blowing by Jaylen Brown in the lane, beating Jayson Tatum’s help defense, and finally, absorbing contact made with Kyrie Irving. He hooked the ball with his right hand on his way down and became the sixth-youngest player in NBA history to score at least 48 points in a game.
Jamal Murray Career-High 48 points! pic.twitter.com/LOfWpC8ZhL— Sports ReUp (@SportsReUp) November 6, 2018
There was no touching Murray in the fourth; he shimmied through the lane like he and the Celtics defenders were two same-pole magnets repelling each other. With 8:50 remaining in the game, he had 29 points. That closing shot came just seven minutes later.
It’s fitting that Murray scored his last basket on Irving, fitting that he’d outdueled his fellow score-first guard, 48 points to Kyrie’s 31. Consider it an early return on an investment the Nuggets made in their young scorer. In another timeline, it could have been Kyrie dropping those 48 points for the Nuggets instead. In the summer of 2017, at the height of Irving trade rumors, Denver had reportedly refused to put Murray on the table for a potential Irving trade with Cleveland. In the ensuing season, Murray showed sprinkles of excellence while Irving became a revitalized point guard in Boston. Murray has been positioned as an up-and-coming star since he was drafted out of Kentucky three seasons ago, but it hadn’t been exhibited definitively. He’s had scoring explosions that put the league on notice—his previous career-high 38 points against Portland last season, for example—but the thrill was often left at that: always “he’s coming,” never “he’s arrived.” But in a game where Nikola Jokic was unable to establish a rhythm due to foul trouble, Murray delivered what the franchise was waiting for.
The 30 shots Murray took were a career high. He connected on 19 of them, shot 45.5 percent from distance, and was perfect from the line. He took the opportunity in a close game and ran with it—literally: Many of his late-game points came on tough drives to the rim. It was a statement game against the league’s best defense and solidified the Nuggets as competitors to be taken seriously. With Monday’s win, Denver now has wins against both the Warriors and the Celtics, the two favorites to make the NBA Finals come June. It’s a testament to Denver’s depth that Monday’s victory was largely without Jokic, who played only 27 minutes (albeit adding eight points, eight assists, and 10 rebounds in that time).
From the Nuggets’ solidified rotation to Paul Millsap’s health, everything seems to be clicking at the same time. Now at 9-1, the Nuggets are only a half-game behind the Warriors for the best record in the West. And for a night, Murray became the prince that was promised. It was a welcome sight compared to what had been an uneven shooting performance through the first few weeks of the season (which seems like a trend through his first three campaigns). Denver hopes this performance wasn’t just a flash in the pan. But if it was, then Murray milked it for all it was worth.
Murray had a chance at 50 with 17 seconds left. He missed a layup on a fairly low-difficulty drive, and the Nuggets had broken away enough that there was no reason for the Celtics to foul. The ball was in his hands at the end of the final shot clock, and much to the Boston announcing crew and Irving’s disapproval, he launched a last-ditch shot from 31 feet out. “What kind of competitor wouldn’t it bother?” Irving asked after the game. But Murray was only two points away from being just the eighth player in franchise history to hit the 50-point mark. It’s an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. Though, with how well things are going in Denver these days, he’ll get another shot at it sooner rather than later.