The bricks just kept piling up for Jamal Murray. After getting outshone in Game 1 by Spurs counterpart Derrick White, Murray couldn’t get a thing to drop through three quarters of Game 2 on Tuesday, missing all eight of his field goal attempts—pull-up jumpers, floaters in the lane, layups in traffic, even a dunk.
All those misses, and plenty more from swingman Will Barton, had added up. Despite strong work from the likes of Paul Millsap and Gary Harris, the Nuggets trailed San Antonio by 19 with 4:28 to go in the third, and seemed to be a little more than 16 minutes away from going on the road down 0-2. According to WhoWins.com, only four teams in NBA history have lost the first two games of a best-of-seven series at home and come back to win four of the next five. Staring down the barrel of that daunting bit of historical data, the Nuggets needed something to change, and fast.
One option: Yank the clanging Murray and Barton in favor of reserve guards Monte Morris, Denver’s steadiest backcourt hand all season, and Malik Beasley, one of the Nuggets’ most athletic and capable backup scorers. With the season on the line, head coach Michael Malone leaned that way; Denver promptly ripped off a 15-2 run in just under three minutes to get back within two possessions. Before the end of the third, though, Malone went back to Murray, betting that the third-year guard with the unshakable confidence could shrug off his struggles in time to give the Nuggets a new lease on life.
Good call, Coach.
In the blink of an eye, Murray went from unplayable to unstoppable. After missing his first eight tries on Tuesday, he drilled eight straight shots—including some friggin’ doozies—to outduel veteran stars LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, completely knock the Spurs on their asses, and, most importantly, get the Nuggets on the board in the playoffs with a 114-105 win. Murray poured in 21 of his 24 points in the final frame, completely carrying Denver’s offense and nearly outscoring San Antonio by himself.
It wasn’t even the most remarkable postseason comeback of this week, but fending off two separate 19-point deficits and outscoring a Gregg Popovich team 55-28 in 16 and a half minutes of game time was still quite something. And while it still might not be totally safe to believe in the Nuggets yet, Denver fans can at least take some solace in knowing they’ve avoided the worst-case scenario, thanks to Murray’s heroics … and thanks to the Coach of the Year candidate who gave his young charge the chance to perform them.
“I was going with him,” Malone told reporters after the game. “You know, he needs this. This is so important to all of our guys, but especially to Jamal—a young player, third year. Even though he’s out there struggling, he’s trying to play the right way. I felt, regardless—I didn’t foresee the fourth quarter he was going to have, but I knew in my heart he needed to get these minutes. He needed to be out there. I needed to show him that I believed in him. That’s powerful. If I pull him: ‘Does Coach really believe in me? Does he have my back?’ So I had to stay with Jamal, make or miss, because he’s our guy, and I care about him, and he came through in a big way.”
While center Nikola Jokic (21 points on 7-for-15 shooting, 13 rebounds, eight assists, two steals in a game-high 39 minutes after a comparatively quiet Game 1) is Denver’s best and most important player, it’s no secret that Murray is the Nuggets’ bellwether. When the Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, product has hit 40 percent of his shots or fewer this season, including Game 1, the Nuggets are 17-13; when he’s made at least 45 percent, including Game 2, they’re 27-9.
When Murray can’t find the bottom of the net, like in Game 1 or the first three quarters of Game 2, the Nuggets lack the floor spacing to give Jokic the room to pick out passes underneath the defense or the supplementary firepower to unlock tough half-court defenses. When he’s carving up defenses without a conscience, though—and I really encourage you to rewatch some of those fourth-quarter shots—Denver looks like a legitimate no. 2 seed in a stacked conference, and an honest-to-goodness threat to make the franchise’s first conference finals in a decade. Or, at least, to knock off a disciplined and determined seventh seed that will rarely beat itself, but that is vulnerable to the kind of offensive onslaught that Murray authored in the fourth.
Denver had more than one hero on Tuesday. Harris, who has struggled with injury and inconsistency all season, was huge when Denver needed some stabilizing scoring to keep San Antonio from running away. Beasley and Morris were vital in those late-third minutes that stopped the bleeding. Millsap battled foul trouble to kick in an efficient 20 points and seven rebounds, helped hold Aldridge to 8-for-20 shooting, and nearly faked DeRozan out of bounds with a jab step on his way to a critical fourth-quarter and-1. But it was Murray who decided the fates of both teams, giving a Nuggets team led by a placid mountain both its sneer and a knockout punch to throw, and a San Antonio squad that doesn’t get shaken something else to worry about heading into Game 3.
The Nuggets aren’t out of the woods yet, not by a long shot. A sub-.500 road team this season, they now have to go to AT&T Center—where the Spurs went 32-9 this season, tied for the NBA’s third-best home record, and where Denver hasn’t won since 2012—and win at least once to avoid coming back to the Mile High City facing elimination. Malone will have to find ways to keep DeRozan and Aldridge off the foul line, and to limit a Spurs second unit full of shooters who misfired in Game 2 but are a good bet to get right back in Texas; he’ll also need to keep a watchful eye on the minutes of key bench big man Mason Plumlee, who’s looked exploitable on both ends in this series. One wild quarter doesn’t change the fact that the Spurs have largely gotten the better of this matchup thus far.
It’s a start, though. As Denver general manager Tim Connelly told our Kevin O’Connor back in January, “You gotta walk before you can run.” With 16 minutes left on Tuesday, the Nuggets’ season seemed over, and now it doesn’t, thanks to Murray’s ability to build something out of all those bricks. Denver’s most dangerous scorer is back. Now the Nuggets are, too.