Jamal Murray was searching for an opening just like he had been doing all series. As the Utah Jazz’s Joe Ingles zigged, he zagged. But while being caught unawares the Australian stuck his knee out, colliding with Murray’s padded-and-sleeved left leg.
Down went Murray and the Denver Nuggets’ Game 7 hopes hung in the balance. He lay just outside the court at the halfway mark and held onto his left quadriceps. He limped, he tried to run it off, and then he eventually got back in the game. There was never a doubt, really. Murray is as competitive as it gets and he’s been adamant that his purpose in the NBA bubble is much bigger than basketball.
“We just decided that if we’re gonna be here, we’re gonna be here,” Murray said. “It was as simple as that, if we’re gonna go home then we’re all gonna go home and everyone’s gonna go their separate (ways)—I’m going back to Canada, Joker’s going back to Serbia—and we’re not gonna get anything accomplished. So, as the NBA, as players, we came together and said, ‘No, we can get more done by being here.’”
Now, Murray will have at least another week, at least another four games to keep fighting the good fight on and off the court. Through Games 4-6 of the Western Conference first round, Murray dropped a total of 142 points, a playoff stretch that—according to Elias Sports Bureau—has only been bettered by Jerry West a.k.a. The Logo and His Airness himself Michael Jordan. It takes some marinating to truly let that thought seep through. A kid from Kitchener, Ontario, is making history that even some of the greatest scorers of all-time, like the late Kobe Bryant or Allen Iverson or Wilt Chamberlain, didn’t.
Fans worldwide are taking notice. Between July 31 and Aug. 31, Murray had the highest follower growth rate on Twitter of any NBA player with 100,000 followers. Murray-based Instagram content racked up 26 million views after the entirety of his 2018-19 season collected 32.4 million views. For the playoffs, Murray is fourth in scoring behind Donovan Mitchell, Kawhi Leonard and James Harden. This is someone who was considered to have stagnated a bit having averaged 18.5 points in the regular season after putting up 18.2 points a game last year and been viewed as someone who’s confidence extends beyond his ability. It appears the moment where the two have crossed paths is here, at just 23 years of age. Murray lives in the moment, though, not the past. He meditates, compartmentalizes, and navigates through life just like he would a pick-and-roll.
“Life is a weird thing because it puts roadblocks in front of you, sometimes you gotta go through it, sometimes you gotta go around it, sometimes you gotta take a pause and look back at what you’re gonna do, have a plan,” Murray explained. “I’ve just kinda put that all together, down two starters, putting a rookie in there that doesn’t know our plans fully and where to go and stuff like that, making me be more vocal, making me put the ball in the hoop more, my teammates trusting me. I think that’s one of the biggest things, when I go to coach and say do this, do that, they trust me. I try not to let them down.”
Murray’s isn’t just helping them avoid failure—a colossal one that was staring them down when they trailed the series 3-1; he’s elevating them to a ceiling many struggled to envision for the Nuggets despite them landing the three-seed. But now they get the ultimate test, an opportunity to go against a team that is considered one of the favourites for the title in the L.A. Clippers. If Denver and Murray truly want a graduation ceremony, they need to do it against a serious contender. They blew a shot at the conference finals a year ago when they fell to Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers in seven games after holding a 3-2 series lead, and while defeat once again would certainly be considered a disappointment in their locker room, pushing the Clippers to the degree the Dallas Mavericks did in the previous round will earn them the respect they’ve been looking for.
Luka Doncic is out of this post-season, but no one will forget his Herculean effort from the first round. If Murray can keep his flaming torch going for another six or seven games while having to deal with the likes of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, he too will be considered to have entered a different stratosphere.
Murray’s leadership off the court could also convey his persona in a different light going forward. He set the tone for it with his comments after Game 6, and when he explained to those watching his emotional interview that the killing of George Floyd and bringing justice for Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake was personal to him because anti-Black racism isn’t just an American problem but a global problem. Those words carried extra weight as a Black Canadian.
“It’s lives, it’s your life,” Murray said. “Imagine losing your life. I don’t know what else to say; imagine a father losing their life while they have kids. Imagine a father, son, brother getting shot seven times in front of their kids. Imagine that.”
NBA players are consistently shedding light on the lens through which the playoffs should be viewed, that they are ultimately just games. Murray is steadfast in his desire to use the NBA’s platform to translate conversation into action and, arguably unfairly, those words extend to a wider audience as he continues extending the limits of his game.
“I play with a lot of heart, play with a lot of passion, and when you’re fighting for something, it means a whole lot more,” Murray said. “We’ve been fighting this fight for a long time. We’re tired of being tired and, like I said, I go out there and fight for something. Win or lose, I go out there and fight for something.”