Some N.B.A. players treat their postgame interview sessions like fashion moments. They wear styled couture outfits, bold graphic shirts or lively prints — anything to stand out.
But on Wednesday night, Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray walked into the interview room after winning Game 3 of the N.B.A. finals wearing an unassuming white T-shirt and baggy gray sweatpants. A few glints here and there — a glittering bracelet and large stud earrings — added a little sparkle.
Murray’s attire represented an ever-present dichotomy in his public persona. There are ways in which he seems unassuming, perhaps because he is often overshadowed by his teammate Nikola Jokic. But when you really pay attention, particularly throughout this year’s playoffs, his play sparkles through those perceptions.
“Jamal, he’s a guy that thrives, lives and excels in the moment,” Nuggets Coach Michael Malone said. “Never afraid of it. You can’t say that for a lot of players.”
When people talk about the Nuggets, they often fixate on Jokic more than Murray. It makes sense: Jokic is the engine of the team, and a two-time winner of the Most Valuable Player Award. He was the team’s only All-Star this season, and he has been a matchup nightmare for Denver’s playoff opponents because of his size, strength and unique ability to facilitate the team’s offense as a center.
The depth of Jokic’s talent can cause some people to undervalue what Murray contributes as Denver’s dynamic starting point guard and second-leading scorer. But on Wednesday, Murray could not be overlooked as he outscored Jokic and helped Denver take a 2-1 series lead against the Miami Heat. With the 109-94 victory, the Nuggets reclaimed the home-court advantage they lost on Sunday when the Heat won Game 2 in Denver as Murray underperformed. To win the series and a championship, the Nuggets will need Murray to excel just as he did in Game 3.
“I mean, we win,” Jokic said when asked what it does for the Nuggets to have Murray playing as well as he has in the playoffs. “I think it’s pretty simple. But he’s playing phenomenal.”
Part of what obscures Murray’s dynamism is his difficult journey, in addition to the grand shadow cast by Jokic. Murray doesn’t draw much attention to himself off the court. He is from a small town in Canada and has been open about meditating since high school.
He was budding into a star during the 2019-20 season when the coronavirus pandemic threatened to interrupt his path. He was having the best offensive season of his career, averaging 18.8 points per game, when the N.B.A. paused its season in March 2020 for several months because of the pandemic.
When the season resumed on a sequestered campus at Disney World in Florida that July, Murray was even better. He averaged 26.5 points and 6.6 assists per game in the playoffs as the Nuggets fought their way to the Western Conference finals.
Doc Rivers, who coached the Los Angeles Clippers at the time, sometimes saw Murray and Malone while getting haircuts on the campus in Florida. The Clippers faced the Nuggets in the conference semifinals and lost despite having a 3-1 series lead.
“That’s like a nightmare for me,” Rivers said in April. “He was incredible.”
A year later, with the Nuggets seeming like they would challenge for a championship, Murray tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and missed the 2021 playoffs, embarking on a recovery process that can take two full years. That was 26 months ago.
“I do think he’s headed back to that direction,” Rivers said in April, referring to Murray’s star turn at Disney World. He added: “He’s starting to do it consistently, and that’s probably what people are waiting for, but it’s going to happen. You can see it coming.”
Murray missed the entire 2021-22 season, including the Nuggets’ brief trip to the postseason, where they lost to the Golden State Warriors in the first round. This is his first playoff run since his time at Disney World.
On Wednesday, Malone said that Murray had been “dying to get back to this setting, and just go out there and put on the performance that he’s putting on.”
He has scored more than 30 points in eight of the Nuggets’ 18 games this postseason. He scored 37 points twice in four games against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals. He has had 10 assists in each game of the finals.
“Jamal, he expects a lot of himself,” Nuggets guard Christian Braun said. He continued, “Those are the performances we expect from him.”
Murray had 26 points, 6 rebounds and 10 assists in Game 1. In Game 2, the Heat focused on neutralizing him. They put their best player, the indefatigable Jimmy Butler, on him and often hounded him with double teams. Murray scored 18 points in the game.
“I’m not going to tell you how to beat it,” Murray said on Tuesday, referring to the Heat’s plan, “but I’ve got my ways.” He smiled as he thought about it.
In the moments after Game 2, Murray had feigned self-conviction. But over the next few days, Malone saw the truth. Murray hadn’t brushed off the loss at all. He had internalized it and blamed himself.
“I felt like I didn’t bring the intensity that the moment called for,” Murray said. “Even though I didn’t play terrible, I felt like I could have done a lot more. Most people that have watched the Nuggets play, when I have a game like that, I’m most likely going to bounce back.”
On Wednesday night, Murray responded with 34 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. He and Jokic became the first pair of N.B.A. teammates in any regular-season or playoff game to have triple-doubles with at least 30 points in the same game. Jokic finished with 32 points, 21 rebounds and 10 assists, becoming the first player in N.B.A. history to have at least 30 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists in a finals game.
“It’s greatness,” Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon said. “That’s the dynamic duo right there.”
Murray scored 20 points in the first half, making 8 of 13 shots, including 3 of 5 3-pointers. Murray made a habit of making big shots to stymie Heat runs. Miami trailed by as many as 21 points.
“Jamal set the tone for their group, and he was aggressive, assertive,” Heat guard Kyle Lowry said, adding, “It made things a little bit easier for Jokic.”
Murray scored less in the second half, but made big plays defensively and off the ball.
“Forget the stats for a second — I felt Jamal’s presence, his energy, and he was here in the moment,” Malone said. “And for him and Nikola to do what they did tonight in a game that we needed to take, regain home-court advantage of the series, was special to watch.”
Murray delivered in a high-pressure situation. He felt burdened by the way he played in Game 2, but he didn’t shy away from the feeling.
“People ask: ‘It’s a big stage. Do you get nervous and stuff?’” Murray said. “You’re supposed to be. That’s what makes you care. That’s what makes you alive. That’s what makes you enjoy these moments.”