- Ohm Youngmisuk has covered the Giants, Jets and the NFL since 2006. Prior to that, he covered the Nets, Knicks and the NBA for nearly a decade. He joined ESPNNewYork.com after working at the New York Daily News for almost 12 years and is a graduate of Michigan State University.
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The Denver Nuggets trailed by 15 and were down to possibly the final 21 minutes of their season when Jamal Murray came to life and saved them on Tuesday.
Burying a variety of step-back jumpers and converting a dazzling, spinning layup over Rudy Gobert, Murray made 14-of-18 shots and scored 33 second-half points to help Denver stave off elimination with a 117-107 win over Utah in Game 5.
Utah leads the best-of-seven series 3-2.
This series has featured an epic duel between two of the brightest guards in the game in Murray and Donovan Mitchell. One game after the two became the first opponents to score 50 points each in a playoff game, Murray outshined Mitchell down the stretch, finishing with 42 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. Mitchell had 30 points and five assists.
“The young man is growing up and turning into a superstar on the biggest stage,” Denver coach Michael Malone said of Murray. “And couldn’t be more proud of him.”
Murray scored 32 points in the second half in Game 4 on Sunday, and he joins Allen Iverson, James Harden and Russell Westbrook as the only players to have multiple 30-point halves in the postseason since 1996-97, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Murray’s 33 points during Tuesday’s second half tied Westbrook and Harden for the most by any player whose team was facing elimination in the past 20 postseasons.
“Jamal embraces the moment,” Malone said. “He’s not afraid of it. Some people run away from those moments. He looks for them. And without Jamal Murray’s play, and not even just the points, but his attitude, that swagger, that confidence. That is contagious to all of our other players.”
After winning Game 1 in overtime when Murray had 36 points and nine assists, the Nuggets lost the next three in large part because of Mitchell’s brilliance. The Nuggets had difficulty containing Mitchell on pick-and-rolls and slowing down Utah shooters.
Denver’s Nikola Jokic came out on fire Tuesday, scoring 21 points and hitting all eight of his shots, including five 3-pointers, in the first quarter. But the Nuggets trailed 71-56 with 9:44 left in the third quarter.
Malone took a timeout and didn’t like the body language he was seeing from his team.
“I could see the heads dropping,” Malone said. “So that timeout wasn’t to draw up a fancy play … we had to fight and defend to get out of it and make sure we stay engaged. I did not want to walk out of Orlando with our heads bowed down feeling sorry for ourselves.”
The Nuggets proceeded to hold Utah to 36 points the rest of the way — a big win for Malone’s defense, which had struggled when the game mattered in the previous three games.
But it was Murray who made sure the Nuggets weren’t leaving the bubble. With Malone playing Jokic and Murray the entire second half, Murray scored in an assortment of ways.
With the game tied at 101-101, Murray knocked down an 18-foot turnaround fadeaway, hit a 26-foot 3-pointer that bounced on the rim several times before falling and then drilled two step-back jumpers to push the Nuggets up 110-101 in the span of two minutes.
He also drove and kicked out to an open Jokic in the right corner for a 3-pointer with 23.6 seconds left to close the game.
“He got hot,” Mitchell said. “He took advantage of a lot of situations. He’s a shot-maker. No matter who you put on him, he’s a shot-maker … he’s their go-to guy, him and Joker. They had a level we couldn’t quite reach, and that’s on us.”
Murray, 23, said he sees other young talent rising this postseason and feels the challenge to make the most out of this playoff platform with the fight for social justice continuing around the country.
“We got a lot of young talented guys,” Murray said of young stars like himself, Mitchell and Dallas’ Luka Doncic stepping up in the playoffs. “And we get to play on the biggest stage. We get a platform. And I wear those Breonna [Taylor] shoes, and those George Floyd shoes. We’ve been fighting that [social injustice] battle for 400 years. The least I can do is go out on the court and fight my battle, and just play as hard as I can, and we’ll live with the result.
“We’ve got a lot of guys in this league that can take over and a lot of guys that aren’t in the playoffs that can take over, as well. As everybody says, the league’s in good hands with the amount of talent we have.”
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