It’s not a hot take to say Jamal Murray has been spectacular in the playoffs. It shouldn’t be a hot take to say he’s making The Leap.
Like Jayson Tatum earlier this season, Murray is realising his potential in dramatic fashion. The Denver Nuggets guard has taken games over late on in a way that only a handful of players in the league can.
NBA players are often put into tiers. There are superstars like Kawhi Leonard, Steph Curry and LeBron James. Then there are stars. Below that there’s a raft of talent, players battling injury frailty, inconsistency or a combination of the two. Murray and Tatum belonged in that third group until now – they are firmly alongside established names including Paul George, Kemba Walker and Klay Thompson. Two stars have been born this season.
Where Tatum put together a string of regular season brilliance, Murray has been a post-season maestro for this never-say-die Nuggets club. He has passed 40 points on four occasions in the playoffs, and twice went to 50. The duels with Donovan Mitchell in the first round broke records, he exploded for the Game 7 win over the Clippers, and he’s doing it all in the Western Conference Finals.
Murray is shooting near enough 50% from three in the post-season. He’s draining floaters, stepbacks and getting to the rim. The scoring has been headline-grabbing, but it’s the maturity of his performances that’s been most striking. Always regarded as a streaky shooter, he struggled in Game 7 against the Blazers last season. Murray has been sloppy at times on offence in the past and a liability defensively.
His passing has developed dramatically. There are still turnovers in his game, of course, but Murray has excelled at hitting the open man in this post-season. As the help comes on his drives, he elevates, twisting his body and firing to an open teammate either cutting to the basket or standing on the perimeter.
Murray The Playmaker has been every bit as impressive as his scoring. Red-hot shooting is great to watch, but it comes and goes. That sort of decision-making is a sustainable improvement – his 12 assists in Game 3 against the Lakers showed how effective he can be as a shot creator for others.
The defence has been an underrated development, too. Denver have shown great defensive effort since falling 3-1 down to Utah, much of that has been led by Murray and Nikola Jokic. Murray, again, isn’t the finished article, but there has been notable improvement. The communication on the defensive end is much better, and he’s rarely been blown by. There was a particularly impressive possession in the fourth quarter on Tuesday when he was switched onto Anthony Davis and forced the All-NBA big man to give up the ball.
When guarding players more suited, he has resisted the urge to swipe and moved his feet well. For someone standing at just 6’3, he has contested shots effectively. Murray is never going to be elite on that end, but going from subpar to solid and occasionally better is a major upgrade.
Murray was often in the shadows of other young guards. Most rated Mitchell and Devin Booker significantly higher before these playoffs. Murray has emphatically proven he is, at the very least, on a par with those two. He’s got the benefit of playing alongside Jokic, but he’s proven himself as a superior playmaker and has dealt with playoff pressure better than anyone could have envisaged.
This can all be qualified by the small sample size of the playoffs. Maybe this is just being a prisoner of the moment. Beyond the highlight-reel shooting, though, Murray has shown signs of development that should continue into next season. Being an All-Star in the West’s backcourt is incredibly hard, but Murray is good enough to be in the mix.