The emotional toll of the past few days did nothing to divert Jamal Murray’s legendary focus.
In fact, the NBA’s pause and necessary reflection may have been the driving force behind Murray’s jaw-dropping performance.
The rising superstar stared down the Utah Jazz, ripped off his second 50-point game of the first-round playoff series and guaranteed there would be a deciding Game 7. Wearing shoes with images of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd on them, Murray’s enthralling show paced the Nuggets’ 119-107 win in Game 6 on Sunday evening.
After leaving everything he had on the court, Murray poured his heart out in a gripping, emotional postgame interview.
“I play with a lot of heart, I play with a lot of passion,” Murray said, reflecting later on the postgame interview that drew tears. “When you fight for something, it means a whole lot more. We’ve been fighting this fight for a long time, and we’re tired of being tired. Like I said, I go out there and I fight for something.
“… It’s an emotional day because, it’s not just me,” he said. “There’s so many other guys, as you can tell. It’s lives. It’s your life. 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.”
Though the victory meant the Nuggets forced a Game 7 for just the third time in franchise history after trailing 3-1, Murray’s mind was elsewhere. In the immediate aftermath of the game, it didn’t seem to matter that the Nuggets will get the chance to become just the 12th team ever to come back from a 3-1 deficit. The Nuggets came up short in both prior chances.
“I’m running out of things and superlatives for Jamal Murray,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone. “I just want to say I’m proud of him.”
Nikola Jokic added 22 points and nine assists, but it was Murray’s unconscious shotmaking that gave the Nuggets confidence. Murray hit nine 3-pointers as part of Denver’s assault from beyond the arc.
Murray’s 50 points gave him 204 for the six games, breaking Jokic’s previous franchise record for most points scored in a playoff series. Jokic scored 190 in seven games against Portland last season.
Jazz superstar Donovan Mitchell finished with 44 points and nine 3-pointers of his own. The deciding Game 7 is Tuesday night.
For weeks, Nuggets’ guard Gary Harris had been rehabbing his strained hip that he’d suffered just days after his Orlando arrival. Though they desperately needed perimeter defenders, the Nuggets delayed his return to ensure he’d be confident when he made his bubble debut.
On Sunday, he gave the Nuggets a significant defensive boost after they’d been torched by Utah reserve Jordan Clarkson the previous five games. It’s possible the NBA’s three-day pause contributed to Denver’s good fortune.
“We know what Gary’s capable of,” Malone said. “I’m a tremendous believer in who Gary Harris is on both sides of the court.”
Harris helped contain the Jazz to 23 points in the third quarter, while Jerami Grant and Jokic took care of the scoring. Grant added 10 points and Jokic drained a clutch, banked 3-pointer to help preserve the lead. At 88-79, the Nuggets had their first lead heading into the fourth quarter all series. Murray’s shooting in the fourth quarter kept Utah at bay.
Sunday’s game, originally slated for last Thursday, came after days of turmoil and heartache. After video spread of the Jacob Blake shooting in Wisconsin, players from around the NBA decided something needed to give. They no longer felt comfortable playing in a bubble, secluded from their families and the outside world.
The NBA took a momentary pause to reflect. When players returned after three emotionally exhausting days, they’d created a new social justice coalition, renewed efforts to create voting access and gained a commitment from league owners to help end qualified immunity.
But after what Malone deemed the worst practice in his five years as coach Friday, they re-focused ahead of Sunday’s elimination scenario.
“I got that sense yesterday,” Malone said before the game. “Somewhat of a return to normalcy after Wednesday, Thursday, Friday was so draining off the court. Probably nice to get back to doing what we do so well.
“… You can’t replicate the emotions of, you’re in the middle of a playoff series, you’re coming off of a really good, exciting Game 5 win, and then all the sudden somebody pulls the plug out, and you’re waiting to play, you’re waiting to see what’s going on.”
Murray didn’t wait for the second half to catch fire like he did when helping the Nuggets stave off elimination in Game 5. Instead, Murray sliced Utah’s defense with 25 points in the first half and spearheaded a 61-56 halftime lead.
His whiplash drives and audacious shooting imbued the type of confidence that had been absent in the first half of their series.
The Nuggets, who were once down 10 in the first quarter, held the Jazz to just 20 second-quarter points highlighting the defensive impact Harris can have. It was their defense, after all, that saved their season when they were staring up at a 3-1 deficit.