The NBA’s newest superstar or just a hot streak?

Jamal Murray’s playoff performance has had him on fire, but will he cool down?

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Murray is guarded by Donovan Mitchell in Game 4 of their series, in which both scored 50 points, respectively. Photo from NBA.com

Alex Kajda, Staff Writer

The road to stardom as an NBA player could come in a multitude of ways. Some become superstars right off the bat, as many early draft picks and young phenoms are met with high regard directly after their college seasons. Recent lottery picks such as Zion Williamson or Anthony Davis have met their standards with ease and saw no trouble upon their arrival to the league. Players like Kyle Lowry or Bradley Beal have slowly upped their game and increased their averages throughout the years to where they’re at now. Others like Kendrick Nunn or Fred VanVleet were undrafted and have climbed to become notable players for their respective team, the latter being a key contributor to the Toronto Raptors 2019 NBA Championship run. However, one of the oddest ways that players have broken out is through the 2020 NBA Bubble in Orlando. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, teams opting for playoff berths relocated to Orlando this past July to finish out the NBA regular season and playoffs. With no fans, and no home court advantage for teams, many odd players have had incredible performances.

TJ Warren was a notable one, as after being an above average player at best, he exploded upon arrival to the bubble in Orlando, dropping 53 points in the Indiana Pacers’ first game, and following up with 30 point performances in three of his next four games. The Warren hype, however, was short lived, as the Pacers were swept out of the 1st round by the Miami Heat. Other notable performances included Devin Booker propelling an underwhelming Suns team to an 8-0 record in the Bubble, taking the team from the 13th seed to missing the playoffs by a hair. However, a recent explosion has taken place in the playoffs, and quite possibly could be the beginning of one of the NBA’s new top players, this of course, is the performance of Jamal Murray.

Murray, being an above average player prior to these playoffs, averaged 18 points in each of the past two seasons, serving as a solid #2 option for the Denver Nuggets behind superstar center Nikola Jokic. However, as of late, Murray completely took over in the Denver Nuggets’ series against the Utah Jazz, leading the team back from a 3-1 series deficit. In a Game 4 loss, Murray began his tear by dropping 50 points. Facing elimination in back to back games, Murray dropped 42 and 50 points in Games 5 & 6 and is proving to be an X-factor for the Nuggets, snatching the spotlight from his All-Star Center, Jokic, and out-battling Jazz superstar Donovan Mitchell, who along with Murray, had also dropped two 50 point games in the series. Nuggets Coach Mike Malone shared his thoughts on Murray’s performance, stating, “This has been an exhausting experience, being down here.  And Jamal’s mental toughness is, I think — I don’t know many mentally tougher kids than Jamal Murray, what he’s doing right now, on this stage with everything happening around the world” (Sports Illustrated). Murray has dedicated his performance to the social issues the NBA and many other North American sports leagues have been battling throughout the past few months.  Murray was overcome with emotion after his Game 6 performance and victory, crediting his George Floyd and Breonna Taylor inspired sneakers for his performance, stating, “We found something worth fighting for, as the NBA, as a collective unit. I use these shoes as a symbol to me to keep fighting, all around the world. They give me a lot of power to keep fighting” (Sports Illustrated). But his job was yet to done, as both teams prepared for their biggest game of the season, Game 7. Despite what many expected, the game was shockingly defense-oriented and low scoring. This, along with evident fatigue and injury throughout the course of the game, limited Murray to just 17 points on the night. However, down the stretch, Murray provided some key plays, including two consecutive buckets that put the Nuggets up 78-74 with just under 2 minutes to go, and with the Nuggets leading 80-78 with under 20 seconds left, Murray recovered a loose ball that was knocked out of Donovan Mitchell’s hands. Despite this, the game still resulted in a chaotic finish, including a 3 pointer by Jazz guard Mike Conley that went in and out at the buzzer, which would have won the Jazz the series. Instead, Murray and Jokic clutched up and clawed through to a Game 7 victory, completing the Nuggets’ series comeback. After the game, Murray embraced a tired and distraught Mitchell as he lay on the floor, both players commemorating each other’s performance throughout the hard-fought series, in which they set an NBA record for most combined points by opposing players in a single series.

The question remains as if Murray’s current streak will end up being a fad and if he will quickly return to his former 18 point-per-game self rather than the 40-point monster that he currently is. A more optimistic viewpoint is that this is the beginning of Jamal Murray’s rise to stardom. The list of players to have dropped 50 points in a playoff series twice is made up of Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, Jamal Murray, and Donovan Mitchell (Who also did so in the Nuggets-Jazz series). A list like that is nothing for some random player to end up on, as the player must perform extremely well at the NBA’s top stage, the playoffs. Murray’s current tear will continue as he warms up for his 2nd round series against the Los Angeles Clippers, a team whose defense is solid all throughout the lineup. This matchup will be a huge test for Murray, to see if he can compete with the big dogs of the NBA such as Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. If Murray performs up to standard, we might just be seeing the rise of a new superstar in the NBA, and if not, he quite possibly could go back to his normal numbers, and this whole streak could be a part of the past.