Do you know how good you have to be at scoring the basketball for an opposing team to make the deliberate strategic decision to leave the best offensive player in the world … open?
Apparently, the answer is: at least as good as Jamal Murray is.
The Nuggets are back in the NBA Finals driver’s seat, taking a 2–1 lead and snatching back home court from the Heat after a dominant, 109–94 win in Game 3. Murray and Nikola Jokić were sublime Wednesday, each posting 30-point triple doubles, a first in NBA history.
And yet it was Murray who seemingly cracked Miami’s defense in Game 3 and will be sending Heat coach Erik Spoelstra back to the drawing board for the next 48 hours. In Game 2, the Heat put Jimmy Butler on Murray as his initial defensive matchup—and it mostly worked. Mixing in some zone and the occasional trap, Miami held Murray to only 18 points in the previous game.
In Game 3, however, even with Butler chasing him around, Murray could not be stopped. He led all scorers with 34 points and hit big shot after big shot. In the second quarter, for example, with the Heat building a little separation and the Miami crowd arguably the loudest it had been all playoffs, Murray coolly and calmly hit an assassin-esque step-back three to silence nearly everyone in the building.
JM27 to beat the shot clock 🏹 pic.twitter.com/aUqZDo0o7e— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) June 8, 2023
Murray’s scoring prowess struck so much fear into the Heat they started sending consistent doubles, traps and blitzes at him in the pick-and-roll, even when it was Jokić who was the screener. That meant the Heat at times were willing to give Jokić—a two-time MVP and the most devastating offensive force in the known universe—wide-open space at the top of the paint as opposed to allowing Murray to step comfortably into shots.
“Yeah, usually it’s a lot more likely when Nikola sits,” Denver coach Michael Malone said of Miami’s aggressive coverage. “Jamal is going to attract so much attention, but usually it’s when Nikola’s off, because if you put two on the ball, Jamal, and he finds Nikola in the pocket, something good is usually going to happen. … That’s the type of game that Jamal was having, and he adjusted to how he was being guarded, which is what you need from your starting point guard.”
The dominance from Murray put the Heat in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t position for much of the game, which is a frequent consequence of Murray’s two-man dance with Jokić. Murray was also a more-than-willing passer when he earned extra defenders, dishing out a Jokić-esque 10 assists to go along with his many buckets.
“Yeah, it's a great duo. Their games really complement each other,” Spoelstra said in the wake of the loss. “You have one guy that really can score in a lot of different ways. Another guy who is setting great screens or handoffs, and if the ball gets back to him, he can get a bunch of people involved…You have to expect there to be elite talent in the Finals. Both those guys are elite-level talent.”
Murray’s elite effort was especially impressive after his so-so Game 2 performance, which ended with him missing a potential game-tying three as the clock expired that would have sent the teams to overtime. Malone, who took Murray aside and put his arm around him for a chat at practice Tuesday, said Wednesday night his point guard put too much blame on himself for Denver’s only loss in the series. The blame may have been too much, but Murray certainly earned a lion’s share of the credit for the Nuggets’ success Wednesday.
The scheme-breaking performance from Murray revealed a larger, uncomfortable truth for the Heat: So far this series, the Nuggets’ star duo has had a significant edge over Miami’s. Even with Bam Adebayo putting up three straight 20-point games, the two-man matchup hasn’t been close in terms of production. Jokić is obviously the best player in this series, but Murray has also outpaced Butler—at least offensively. Murray is averaging more points, rebounds, assists and steals per game than Butler, and he’s doing so while shooting much more efficiently from the field.
The Heat desperately need to find an edge somewhere. Denver’s duo have been the best two players on the floor over the course of the first 144 minutes. The Nuggets have been dominating the paint on each end of the court. Denver is also throttling Miami in transition, doggedly running off misses (and Wednesday, there were many Miami misses) to create easier scores. When the Heat aren’t sinking threes, it simply feels as if they’re sinking.
As for Murray, while the job is not finished, Game 3 was perhaps the highest stakes showcase of his unique talent.
The last time Murray scored exactly 34 in the playoffs came in Game 1 of the second round. That night, he was asked whether his big playoff performances were more reminiscent of “Bubble Murray” or “Healthy Murray,” referring to his epic run during the 2020 playoffs and the subsequent knee injury that kept him out of the last two postseason runs.
Murray clearly bristled at the notion he was some kind of Bubble phenomenon who couldn’t thrive outside of that environment. In what was the most important game of his career so far, Murray showed—even when sharing the court with the best player in the world—he could be the best offensive player on the floor.
That’s not Bubble Murray or even Finals Murray. That’s just Murray. And he alone is special enough to bring the Nuggets closer to their first championship.