It was a master class in heel work. With an early-November win over the Boston Celtics all but wrapped up, Denver Nuggets point guard Jamal Murray was stuck on 48 points—already a career high, but just one bucket short of 50. The unwritten rules say to hold the ball and let time expire. But that’s not Jamal Murray.
Murray let the clock wind down to about a second and jacked one up from deep. He missed the shot, but it still came right across the bow of the Celtics. Kyrie Irving chucked the game ball roughly 100 feet into the stands in disgust, and spent the next 48 hours trying (and failing) to downplay how much it bothered him.
Earlier in that career performance against the Celtics, the 21-year-old pump-faked, stepped into the vacated area, and kissed a 15-footer in off the glass. It’s a routine shot for the crafty guard. Then he licked the tips of every one of his fingers—a totally normal thing to do during the first quarter of a basketball game in November.
Murray’s become the NBA’s troll Robin Hood: He breaks out his bow and arrow for every made long ball, and he seems to go especially hard after the league’s established hierarchy, making the Celtics and Lakers fan bases strange bedfellows in their mutual dislike for a player who doesn’t have rings or banners to his name.
There’s an old-school feel to Murray’s antagonizing ways, and his mentality is mirrored by his game. In a league chock full of shooters with limitless range and explosive finishers playing Moreyball, Murray is a calculated, below-the-rim player with a knack for flowing right into midrange jumpers, aided more by footwork and sleights of hand than anything else. He’s like a reincarnation of Sam Cassell—searching for enough space to get his shot off so he can run down the court and talk about the size of his testicles for the rest of the quarter.
Cassell earned the right to dance in the clutch, but the fact Murray hasn’t done anything of real significance almost makes his antics more effective. His overconfidence is annoying to opponents, but necessary for the Nuggets, who are aiming to be considered something other than a sleeper for the umpteenth straight year.
The alpha dog act feels genuine, especially because of the reticence of his teammates. Everyone loves Paul Millsap’s defense and veteran savvy, but trying to remember what his voice sounds like results in a 404 error. Nikola Jokic is so skilled and unselfish that he’ll go several minutes before remembering he needs to shoot the ball. Jokic might be the only superstar who ranks third on his own team in shots per game, and in spite of his transcendent talent, he often carries the expression of someone who was woken up early from a Sunday nap in order to get cracking on a honey-do list.
The Nuggets don’t need Murray to be an asshole on a Tuesday night in December against the Atlanta Hawks. But in the postseason—where the Nuggets franchise hasn’t been since the 2012-13 season—it’s hit or get hit. Murray can ratchet up the intensity of a game in an instant, or bury himself deep under the skin of an opponent that needs to be slowed down. Jokic can do damn near everything on a basketball court, but he can’t do that.
These acts tend to wear thin over time, but Murray is also the skeleton key to Denver, now in first place atop the Western Conference and becoming a real contender. While Jokic and Gary Harris seem relatively close to their ceilings as players, Murray can still add more. Becoming a consistently above-average 3-point shooter (31.2 percent this season) and increasing his trips to the foul line will help widen gaps on offense, give Jokic even more passing angles to play with, and turn their pick-and-roll dance into something even deadlier than it already is.
Murray’s confidence, however irrational it may be, is a welcome sight for a team punching above its weight class. Murray’s tendency to hunt for tough pull-ups is a little more palatable than it might be elsewhere because Jokic’s presence ensures that everyone else is going to be well-fed. The Nuggets share the ball and have, surprisingly, been one of the league’s best defensive units with Millsap back in the fold, but it’s Murray who will eventually have to run the gantlet of Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook, and Chris Paul in the postseason and find ways to answer.
That’s a tall task for anyone, let alone a 21-year-old, but it would be an impossible one without a big ego. Illogical heat checks will prove necessary against more engaged defenders; fingers will need to be licked, and enemies will need to be made. As Murray hones his game, he has made one thing clear: He’s going to keep that same energy, whether anyone likes it or not.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated the Nuggets’ place in the standings; they own the tiebreaker, so they are first in the West.