PHILADELPHIA – The most incontrovertible way to get Jamal Murray mad is to distill the last 20 months into three tidy words.
Are you back?
Murray doesn’t know how to answer. A look of incredulity will spread across his face as he ponders the question he’s been asked more than any other. “Back” to what standard exactly? And does “back” minimize all that he learned throughout his arduous 18-month ACL rehab?
Maybe the answer, which eludes Murray anyway, isn’t important. Maybe it’s the fact that the question is even being asked — repeatedly.
Statistically, Murray is honing in on being the player he was before the injury. His overall averages are close to where he was during the 2020-21 season, but narrow the frame. Over the past 25 games entering Saturday’s showdown at Philadelphia, the Nuggets went 20-5, second only to the 76ers’ 19-4 record. Within that stretch, Murray averaged 20.5 points per game on over 40% from 3, with 6.4 assists and 4.5 rebounds.
“Jamal Murray’s playing at an All-Star level,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said after his team survived the Pelicans on Tuesday, the first of their three-game road trip. Despite two uncharacteristic late turnovers, Murray still managed 25 points, seven assists and three steals in 40 minutes of work.
Normally, while adhering to a routine followed by “most ACL guys,” to steal a Murray phrase, Denver’s burly guard would lift after a game so as to overload his surgically-repaired leg, which would, in theory, yield a more robust recovery the following day. But because the team was on a back-to-back, Murray didn’t lift that night. He did, however, grant some time for a conversation, revealing a window into his All-Star pursuits and the cumbersome nature of comparisons.
Murray can be terse, insightful, funny and sharp all in one answer. Like one of his hesitation pivots in the mid-range, he can get a defender (or reporter) to lunge, only to swivel and swoop into a cleaner shot a moment later. In other words, he can evade questions as deftly as opponents.
Asked about Malone’s All-Star remark, Murray, initially, didn’t want to indulge.
“I just let my game speak for itself,” Murray said before speaking more. “… I agree, though.”
Alongside All-Star starters Luka Doncic and Steph Curry, reserve locks Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Ja Morant, and potential backups De’Aaron Fox, Damian Lillard and Anthony Edwards, there’s hardly any space among guards in the Western Conference. Coaches tasked with voting on All-Star reserves will lean on any justification they can to leave someone off. In Murray’s case, a slow start coupled with the reconditioning it takes to return from an 18-month hiatus would qualify. But Murray, as confident as ever, hasn’t fixated on that honor.
“It’s not make or break for me whether I make All-Star,” he said. “I’m trying to win the championship. … I don’t want to shoot at All-Star, not make it, and all the sudden my mental is down because I didn’t make it or something. I already know I’m one of the best here. I have that confidence. I don’t need validation to know that.”
Sequestered inside his spartan-style basement while fulfilling health-and-safety protocol for four games, Malone saw the same thing on his big screen TV. He saw Murray dash inside the lane, punishing even the slightest defensive hesitation from his opponent. He saw the fearlessness that Murray used to employ, taking off around the rim without knowing exactly where he’d land or what might become of the shot he was about to take. He saw the finesse and the fire when Murray recorded the first triple-double of his career, and two nights later, missed a crucial jumper that would’ve sent the game to overtime.
“I do see a very confident, a very aggressive Jamal Murray,” Malone said.
He’s been so effective, opponents have been swarming him with double teams to force him off the ball. To counter that strategy, the Nuggets have just had other players, including non-traditional ball-handlers like Vlatko Cancar, bring the ball up the floor.
“The team trusts me right now,” he said.
Despite long, dark days of rehabs, Murray insists he knew he’d reach this level of impact.
“No, no doubts,” he said. “I want current Jamal to be better than the Bubble. Once we get to that, then everyone will stop getting on my back about, ‘Am I here or not?’”
Murray’s naturally impatient. He grew tired of the “back” questions as early as late November, when he had his first 30-point game since surgery. He’s since done it two more times, adding seven other games of at least 25 points.
“I’m obviously here,” he said, laughing. “Everybody’s going to be comparing me to me, and what I’ve done … All I can do is keep progressing.”
What he did in the Bubble, with multiple 50-point games and a level of confidence bordering on unhinged, would be an outlandish standard to achieve. And yet, Murray is unfazed.
“I can’t control (the comparisons),” he said. “That wasn’t even the best. That’s just the best I’ve shown. I know that there are more levels to my game than that.”
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