Jamal Murray is saving the defending champion Nuggets with clutch playoff performances


DENVER — A supremely confident Reggie Jackson was just waiting to let loose as he watched Jamal Murray dribble past Nikola Jokic’s high screen with the seconds ticking away on the Los Angeles Lakers’ season.

“Just watch our bench, I clearly called, ‘Game!’” Murray’s backup said Thursday following the Denver Nuggets’ practice at Ball Arena. “I mean, the guy has the ball in his hands, with the shot clock running down, time running out, I haven’t seen too many do it better than him.”

One week earlier, in Game 2, Murray’s basket over an outstretched Anthony Davis from the right baseline completed a comeback from a 20-point second-half deficit and gave Denver the first buzzer-beater in the franchise’s 100-game playoff history.

This time, Murray swept left as Austin Reaves, slowed by the screen, chased him through the lane, where every Laker converged.

As the shot went up, four defenders were in the paint and the fifth was just inches outside the lane. None were in position to deflect or even affect Murray’s tiebreaking bucket that sent the defending NBA champion Nuggets onto Round 2 and LeBron James to his earliest playoff exit ever.

No other player in the NBA’s 77-year history had ever hit two winners in the final five seconds of a playoff series.

“His poise, his confidence, his belief in himself, obviously his work ethic to be ready and prepared for the moment,” Jackson said, rattling off the qualities that make Murray such a sure bet in the clutch.

“The only people who might be more cool, calm and collected than him in that moment are his teammates — because we have the utmost belief in him,” Jackson said.

The most amazing part of Murray’s magical night was that he did it while defying coach Michael Malone, who, along with the team’s medical staff, tried to talk him into sitting out the game because of a strained left calf that had announced itself 48 hours earlier in Denver’s Game 4 loss in Los Angeles.

Instead, Murray logged a playoff-high 41 minutes, scored a team-best 32 points and sealed his reputation as the “Laker Breaker” by sending James home in five games, one fewer than the Suns did in 2021, the only other time the league’s career scoring leader failed to advance out of the first round.

Not surprisingly, Timberwolves point guard Mike Conley suggests that containing Murray will be key to Minnesota’s success as the Wolves try to parlay their sweep of the Phoenix Suns in Round 1 and avenge last year’s first-round loss to the Nuggets. The series starts Saturday in Denver.

“When Murray goes well, they go well, for the most part,” Conley said. “We’re going to try to limit that as much as we can. He’s a great player. He’s going to make his plays, but we have a lot of guys we can throw at him, a lot of different schemes we’re going to try to throw at him in hopes that it slows him down a little bit.

“But not just him. We’re treating Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, all these guys just as high on our scouting report. Because when they’re playing well, they’re pretty much unbeatable.”

Boosted by some 50-point performances in the bubble, Murray has averaged 24.9 points, 6.4 assists and 5.0 rebounds in 58 career playoff games.

Even when he’s struggling to find his shot as he was in Game 2, Murray is magical in the fourth quarter

“There’s a few guys in the league who play like that: When the fourth quarter comes up, you know that it’s their time and they’re going to step up a couple notches,” Conley said. “We definitely know that’s coming. So fourth quarters start, you have to be locked in and understand that you need to be more aggressive.

“Don’t hold your head if he makes a tough shot. That’s what he does. He’s going to make a fadeaway or two, or an and-one, or things that other players might not be able to make and be able to move onto the next possession and figure out how to win the game.”

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AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell in Minneapolis contributed to this report.

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AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/NBA



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