May 25, 2024

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Jamal Murray, who has been battling an injury, is solidifying his status as the NBA's best player in the playoffs

Jamal Murray, who has been battling an injury, is solidifying his status as the NBA's best player in the playoffs

DENVER — In the moments after Jamal Murray ended the Denver Nuggets' streak and ended a season for the Los Angeles Lakers, he clashed with head coach Michael Malone and gave perhaps the least he deserved this year.

He had just made the shot that won another game for the Nuggets, his second first-round score. He did so with a strained left calf that limited him in almost debilitating ways Monday night at Ball Arena.

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But Murray's sense of humour, which Murray has when he's in a good mood, was as good as ever.

“It's good you played with me tonight, coach,” Murray told Malone. “I don't know if we would have won if I didn't play tonight.”

Jamal Murray has yet to become an NBA star in his career. He has never made an All-NBA team. However, how many players will you take on in a playoff spot? This is what you call a rhetorical question because the answer should be universal: not much.

Murray put up 50 point heaters in the postseason. His playoff run last spring was instrumental in the Nuggets winning their first title in franchise history. Whatever Murray was during the regular season, he cemented himself as one of the best rookies in basketball history ever. In no case should the previous sentence be a controversial statement.

Monday night added to his tradition. When Murray dribbled twice to his left and stepped back with one foot to beat Lakers guard Austin Reeves, we all knew what was about to happen. It was a pure 15 feet long. This victory gave Denver 108-106 at Ball Arena. He gave the Nuggets a 4-1 win. It gave Denver a much-needed break before a series with the Minnesota Timberwolves that promises to be grueling.

“Really, we were all in shock,” Malone said. “We didn't know who would be available for us to finish this game.”

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In a Game 3 win in Los Angeles, backup point guard Reggie Jackson sprained his ankle, an injury that left him on crutches and a protective boot during Denver's day off at the Santa Monica Hotel. In the first half of Game 5 on Monday night, goaltender Kentavious Caldwell-Pope sprained his ankle so badly that he left the game twice during the remainder of the first half. He came back in the second half, got the better of him, and made some big shots.

Murray strained his calf in the second half of Game 4, Denver's only loss of the series. He started Monday as questionable to play. So, Murray arrived at Ball Arena earlier than usual to receive treatment, attempt to stretch and loosen his calf, and decide whether he would be able to play. Calf strains are inherently a difficult and dangerous injury. They are soft tissue injuries that heal slowly. More importantly, it usually leads to more serious diseases, such as Achilles injuries.

Last playoffs, the 2019 NBA Finals series featuring the Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors changed when then-Warriors forward Kevin Durant returned from a calf strain and ended up tearing his Achilles tendon. In 2021, a second-round series involving the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers was upended, in part, when then-Jazz point guard Mike Conley suffered a calf strain. This postseason, the Milwaukee Bucks did not face Giannis Antetokounmpo in their first-round matchup against the Indiana Pacers due to a calf strain he suffered at the end of the regular season.

These examples serve to tell the story of why the Nuggets themselves don't want Murray to play on Monday night. On the surface, the logic was sound. With a 3-1 lead heading into Game 5, if Denver defeats the Lakers without Murray that would give the point guard seven days to heal. if not? Then the hope will be that Murray will be ready for Game 6 on Thursday night in Los Angeles.

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“I came in early to get some treatment and I felt like I could play,” Murray said. “They told me no. I didn't say no. I didn't want to leave my teammates out there. I didn't want to hang them out to dry. I wouldn't have been able to live with myself if I didn't do everything I could to be on the floor tonight.”

Monday night wasn't the first time this season that Murray played a game against Denver's Tip. Near the end of the regular season, the Nuggets wanted to sit Murray against the Utah Jazz to protect against Murray's left knee pain. The Utah game was the front end of a back-to-back road game, with the Nuggets facing the Timberwolves again at Ball Arena the next night. On the team's trip to Salt Lake City, Murray approached Malone and begged him to play. He did that and turned around a big fourth quarter to push the Nuggets over the Jazz, and played the next night, a win over Minnesota.

Murray is an honest and raw human being. He's emotional and will tell you exactly what he's thinking. Malone is a good fit because he is open to honest, tough, and sometimes emotional conversation. That was key Monday night. The concern, of course, was that Murray would play in Game 5 and hurt his calf, something the Nuggets did not want. But Murray wasn't going to miss a playoff game, not if he could help it. So, he and Malone had this conversation. Murray, Malone and the coaching staff then spoke. They came up with a plan, and Murray suited up and got ready to play.

“I knew he was going to play, to be honest,” Denver star Nikola Jokic said. “Without talking to him, I knew he wanted to play and he wanted to be in the big games. Even though he didn't hit his best, it's not how you start, it's how you finish.”

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Murray was 13 of 28 from the field Monday night, while making five of his 10 three-point attempts. He scored a game-high 32 points, including massive shots beyond the game-winner. He dove at LeBron James, who was amazing in his own right, and bowed down to him. He broke through the defense at will in the last five minutes.

It wasn't even close to 100 percent.

From the opening possession, it was clear that Murray couldn't explode off the dribble the way he wanted to. It was clear that he had not taken his usual first step. The Nuggets wanted to limit his minutes as much as possible, but he ended up playing 40 minutes on Monday night. Ironically, this was probably the best thing for Murray, because playing kept his calf warm and comfortable, and Murray was playing and shooting the ball better as the game progressed.

“I was moving well enough to play,” Murray said. “But the jump was the most important thing for me. That was the hardest challenge, leaving the ground, even while I was jumping. So I went to a deeper area before I hit the ball, because I wanted to put as little pressure on my calf as possible.

Deep into Monday night, Malone addressed the question the Nuggets faced. Did they want to sit Murray? Or did they want to put their chips in the middle of the table and try to finish the series with the Lakers? It was a collaborative conversation, but in the end, the Nuggets settled on the latter option. The reward was a win in Game 5, nearly a week of rest and the fact that Murray didn't hurt himself further.

Now, the Nuggets and Wolves get to the series many have been waiting for.

“The bigger the moment, the more Jamal Murray shines,” Malone said. “It's a tough cookie.”

(Photo: David Zalubowski/Associated Press)