The Denver Nuggets find themselves in a 2-1 series hole against an indomitable San Antonio Spurs team – one that has made the playoffs every season for more than the last two decades.
The Nuggets, on the other hand, are experiencing its first taste of the postseason since 2013. There isn’t a player from that team currently on this roster. Denver may have finished with the second-best overall record out West, but the lack of experience outside of the regular season has doomed them so far.
The one key cog preventing everything from shifting back into form and the 54-win offensive juggernaut they were all season has been Jamal Murray. Playing in playoff atmosphere for the first time ever has resulted in three incredibly rough games for the former Kentucky guard with one quick – but gigantic – breath of fresh air mixed in between. Let’s recap them real quick.
The series kicked off with Denver trudging through a horrific shooting night as a team. Gary Harris was the only Nuggets starter to convert on at least half of his shot attempts. A mere six of the team’s 28 attempted three-pointers found their way into the bottom of the basket. And to cap it all off, Murray spilled out 16 misses on 24 attempts for 17 total points without making a shot beyond the arc.
The Spurs would win Game 1 by five points and went into Game 2 rocking some intense confidence. And once again, Murray couldn’t buy a bucket. He started out a miserable 0-8 from the field through the first three quarters. Wide open jumpers from 18-feet were clanking out. The Spurs were wearing the same confidence that Murray desperately needed. And in the fourth quarter, he finally stole some. Murray exploded for 21 points in the final quarter of that game, bringing his dying Nuggets team back to “steal” a home game that San Antonio controlled throughout.
That was supposed to be the turning of the tides for Murray. His head coach was injecting confidence into him like an intravenous drug. He couldn’t miss a damn shot in those final 12 minutes. All the things that make Murray so tantalizing and promising were put on display for that lone quarter. Then Game 3 showed everyone why he hasn’t quite yet taken it to that next gear filled with future All-Star selections.
Murray has not “taken the leap”, so to speak. He made a considerable jump in production from his rookie to sophomore season, but now in year three, he can’t seem to shake the question marks that follow him. Game 3 was the biggest indication of that all season.
Derrick White, the Spurs second-year guard from Colorado who at one point had to find a basketball home playing Division II hoops in Colorado-Springs, lit Murray up for 36 points, five rebounds, and five assists on 15-21 shooting in Game 3. Murray’s stats? Six points in 31 minutes. 2-6 shooting. Four turnovers. A minus-25 in the box score. Murray was extinguished before he could even get the coals burning.
*Quick – and quite funny – anecdote: White is two-and-a-half years older than Murray*
Game 4 will be monumental in several ways. First off, it’ll decide the series. If the Spurs win Game 4 in San Antonio, there is no chance the Nuggets win three in a row, especially with one of those three games being played on the road. Denver is a sub-.500 road team this year, however a great home team. But if they lose Game 4, this series might as well be over.
The second important note about this series is it’ll determine if the Nuggets are “for real” or not. Running into a Spurs team that craps out second-round All-Stars during the middle of a playoff series definitely doesn’t help, but the Nuggets are better than this team. They just are. But experience speaks volumes and it’s screaming into the rafters right now. Because the reality is the Nuggets are legit. They won 54 games. Of course they’re for real. But the playoff environment isn’t for everybody. Which brings me to my final point.
Maybe Jamal Murray – along with Nikola Jokic – isn’t ready for the moment? Paul Millsap has been the one steady constant for Denver. And he can thank his several years of playoff experience for that. Murray and Jokic are fresh into this new challenge and only Jokic has been able to somewhat handle it properly. Murray clearly isn’t ready for this moment yet. If he was, he wouldn’t have played as poorly as he did in Game 3. There’s just no other way around it.
But that’s what’s so great about the NBA playoffs. It’s onto the next game. Game 4 will be the biggest event Denver has played in years. If Murray doesn’t show up, the Nuggets won’t win. He hasn’t been ready for the moment through the first three games, but he can mend all of that by heading back home to Denver with a tied series.