Before we even begin talking about Jamal Murray, a few reminders: He’s 23 years old. This is his fourth NBA season, and his second postseason. This is important, because there is this vague notion hanging out there in analyst land that Murray is some kind of Jekyll and Hyde performer, like he’s dropping 40 one night and disappearing the next, like the difference between him and “true” star point guards is his inability to maintain, or repeat, greatness.
Don’t listen to it.
Murray hung 50 points on the Utah Jazz on Sunday as the Nuggets won Game 6, 119-107, to force Game 7 on Tuesday. It marks the third straight playoff game in which Murray, who dropped 42 points in Game 5 and another 50 spot in Game 4, has scored at least 40 points; the last player to do that was Allen Iverson in 2001. Do the math, and Murray has scored 142 total points over these last three games. Per StatMuse, only Jerry West in 1965 and Michael Jordan in 1988 have ever scored more than that over three consecutive playoff games.
It’s not to suggest Murray is anywhere near that category of player, or that he ever will be. And this certainly isn’t to say that Murray hasn’t waded through inconsistent waters during his young career. He scored 26 combined points in Games 2 and 3 vs. Utah on 11-of-29 shooting including 30 percent from three. He put up six points on 2-of-6 shooting in Game 3 against the Spurs last season.
But again, the guy has played in two postseasons, and as a total body of work he has already acquitted himself as nothing short of a star. A few bad games here and there at 23 years old in your first and second postseason doesn’t make you inconsistent; it makes you 23 years old and not Luka Doncic.
There’s a big difference between “taking the leap” and just, you know, improving. Technically, every young emerging star takes a leap at some point; one might argue Devin Booker did it this season, and particularly in the bubble. But just as with Booker, the signs that Murray was this kind of player from the jump were always there. That’s not a leap. Us having no idea Bam Adebayo was an All-Star-level point-forward is taking a leap. If you’re the least bit surprised that Jamal Murray is dominating NBA playoff games as a shooter and a scorer, while mixing in a few relative duds, you haven’t been paying attention.
“He’s good,” an Eastern Conference coach facetiously texted CBS Sports, replete with the smiley face emoji, on Sunday. “It shows how much shooting and ball skills matter in the playoffs.”
Let’s go ahead and state the obvious that shooting and ball skills don’t just matter in the playoffs; they matter in every basketball game on the planet. And they certainly matter in today’s NBA, which practically demands that scoring point guards are able to create their own offense off the dribble. You don’t have to watch Murray for five seconds to know he’s oozing shooting and ball skills. This didn’t just start this series, which has turned into a first-round classic between Murray and Donovan Mitchell, who nearly matched Murray on Sunday with 44 points of his own.
Speaking of Mitchell, there’s another guy who’s been hit with the inconsistent tag. He shot 32 percent from the field last postseason. He’s averaging over 38 points per game on 55 percent 3-point shooting in the bubble. You can call that “the leap,” but to do so is to imply there was something holding Michell back other than, you know, being in his third NBA season — all three of which have ended in postseason berths, by the way, with the potential for two of them to result in first-round victories.
Mitchell is shooting the lights out right now. He won’t shoot like this forever, and when he falls back off it won’t be reason to suggest he’s dipping back into inconsistency. Likewise, for as long as he does keep shooting like this, it won’t mean he’s “made the leap.” This is, quite simply, an unsustainable high point for an emerging star who is nonetheless on a trajectory completely commensurate with the talent and production he has demonstrated to start his career.
Same for Murray, who is about to play in the third Game 7 of his career. Last season he hit monster shots to close out the Spurs in the first round, then went 4 for 18 against Portland in Game 7 of the conference semis. Does that mean he was Jekyll in one game and Hyde in the other? No. It means he played better in one than the other. That’s called basketball.
When Murray has five years of playoff evidence under his belt, with a significant amount of no-shows on his resume, then you can start talking about him like he’s always a threat to pull a disappearing act. Until then, let’s not take for granted how great these new-age youngsters are, because the impossibly high bar they’ve collectively set for themselves is the only reason we can dare throw an “inconsistent” label at a 23 year-old hanging multiple 50-point games — while averaging 34 points a night on better than 57 percent 3-point shooting — in a playoff series.
And again, it’s not like this is something new. Yes, a guy going from averaging 21 points in last year’s postseason to 34 points this year, on significantly better shooting splits, looks like a leap on paper, but this is eye test stuff. Murray was the best player on the floor in plenty of postseason action last season, particularly in the biggest of moments; he averaged just under 24 against Portland and had consecutive 34-point games in that series, and now he happens to have hit a sustained hot streak in the bubble this time around against a Utah defense that is playing right into his hands.
“[Rudy] Gobert has been back [on screens],” the same Eastern Conference coach told CBS Sports. “[Murray is] coming off naked for shots.”
You mean to tell me Jamal Murray is making a lot of good shots, and then once he gets it going, he’s making everything for a few games? I know it’s hard to believe, but this is not anything out of character. Murray is not a different player, any more than Damian Lillard is a different player when he gets scorching hot. You know it’s there. You’ve seen it. It’s just that Lillard does it more regularly now.
I’m not saying that Murray will ever be a player we can mention in the same breath as Lillard (though it’s not out of the question), but I find these two guys to be similar in the fact that Lillard never made a single monumental leap at any point in his career. Rather, he got a little bit better every year, every series, until one day we looked up and wondered why we hadn’t been calling him a star all along. It won’t be long until we’re saying the same thing about Murray, if we shouldn’t be already. Because none of this, particularly when you factor in the ridiculous shooting clips pretty much everyone is putting up in the bubble, is indicative of anything we haven’t seen from him before.