NBA Finals: How Jamal Murray’s fingerprints were all over Denver’s emphatic Game 1 win

DENVER — Jamal Murray dunked six times in three series as the Denver Nuggets stampeded their way through the Western Conference. In a period of just over a minute and a half Thursday in the first quarter of Game 1 of the 2023 NBA Finals, he added two more.

“I was surprised,” said Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon, who joined Murray in bum-rushing the rim — and the Miami Heat — to stake Denver to an early lead en route to a convincing 104-93 Game 1 win. “I was like, ‘Whoa, my man got VertiMax, man.’ Not the usual dunk. But Jamal is, like, a sleepy athlete. He will dunk you for real. That was crazy.”

And, perhaps, a demonstration of the benefits of earning an extended layoff by wrapping up the Western Conference finals in the minimum four games.

“Had nine days off,” a smiling Murray said after the game, patting his clearly fresh legs for emphasis. “So [I] got to show off my little left leg over there.”

Murray showed a lot more than that in his NBA Finals debut. The 26-year-old guard continued the stellar offensive play that’s been such a major factor in Denver reaching the championship round for the first time since the ABA-NBA merger, getting 25 points or more for the sixth straight game — and the 11th time in the Nuggets’ 16 games this postseason — while also working to ensure that his teammates ate, too.

Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, center, dunks against the Miami Heat during the first half of Game 1 of basketball's NBA Finals, Thursday, June 1, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
Nuggets guard Jamal Murray finishes off a dunk against the Miami Heat during the first half of Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Thursday, June 1, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

“I wasn't sure what was going to happen when the game started, because we had such a long break,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said. “But I'm not surprised that Jamal had the game that he had. He got us going early, made big shots late. And when you have 26 points, 10 assists and six rebounds, that's a hell of a performance in your first game of the NBA Finals.”

A hell of a performance born out of the ongoing smooth operation of the postseason’s most devastating offensive machine — an attack that can bury you even when it’s misfiring from deep (just 8-of-27 from 3-point range for Denver in Game 1, its second-worst long-range shooting game of these playoffs), thanks to the layers upon layers of screens, slips, sprints, handoffs and high-lows that can leave defenses just as bewildered and breathless as the Mile High elevation.

“Jamal is a talented player. He can score in a number of ways,” said Heat guard Gabe Vincent, who saw the bulk of the Murray matchup in Game 1. “I think one of the things that makes him difficult to guard is when he gets off the ball, and then you have to deal with the cuts, and he's circling back. And they know — they’re looking for him. So when he's off the ball, you already know the ball is going to end up in his hands at some point.”

“Yeah, it's different,” said Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, who watched Nikola Jokić, Murray, Gordon and Co. slice and dice his defense to the tune of 50.6% shooting as a team, with 29 assists on 40 field goals. “That's what you expect going into this series. They're a passing and cutting team, but also they are an aggressive team, and so are we.”

Murray brought that aggression from the opening tip, taking a hard right-hand drive around a Jokić screen, making a beeline for the basket and finishing right through the chest of a rotating Caleb Martin for the game’s first score. He kept on attacking, driving to the cup, punishing Miami’s drop coverage with pull-up jumpers and slinging passes to teammates to give them a chance to create an advantage.

“I loved his pace tonight,” said Gordon, whose bully-ball first quarter helped the Nuggets set the tone as the bigger, stronger, more physical team in Game 1. “Just the pace that he played [at] all night long, the tempo that he played at, controlling the game and controlling the flow of the game was great.”

Denver’s at its best when both Jokić, who physically and mentally dominated Game 1 despite taking only five shots through the first three quarters, and Murray are exerting that kind of control on the game. Therein lies the paradox of these Nuggets, though: The most natural, forceful and overwhelming version of their offense expresses itself as if no one person is controlling anything — when it feels like nothing is predetermined, every decision is happening both in real time and at light speed, and everybody’s a threat to put the ball in the basket.

“We're just reading the game,” Murray said. “If they take the pocket [pass] away, we're looking somewhere else. If they take me away, then we're looking somewhere else. We're just trying to find the open man, find the best shot, find the mismatch. I think we do that throughout the game, so it's hard to guard everybody, instead of just one or two guys. We make you have to be locked in on defense throughout the game.”

Miami wasn’t on Thursday — at least, not in a first half that saw Denver shoot a scorching 20-for-31 (64.5%) inside the arc, including 13-for-16 inside the restricted area, largely as a result of all those backdoor cuts, thread-the-needle feeds and persistent paint attacks.

“We've just got to be better and put body on body and make sure that we're challenging everything at the rim,” said Heat star Jimmy Butler, who followed his Eastern Conference finals MVP performance against the Celtics with a quiet opener, scoring just 13 points on 14 shots (albeit with seven rebounds and seven assists) in 38 minutes in Game 1. “Not giving up back cuts and slips for open threes.”

The Heat did tighten things up as the game wore on, limiting Denver to 45 points on 40.5% shooting in the second half. Their zone defense found some success in disrupting Denver’s rhythm; after the Nuggets carved it up for 14 points on eight possessions in the first half, they scored just eight points on 11 zone possessions after intermission, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking.

“Our disposition, the multiple efforts, the resolve in the second half was much better,” Spoelstra said. “But [when] you get to this level, it has to be complete games of that kind of disposition. Even if you have that, you are not always going to win all the possessions that you want.”

Especially when the other guys have that kind of disposition, too, allowing them to snuff out your would-be game-tightening runs. Like, for example, this two-way swing from Murray early in the third quarter:

After going into halftime down 17, the Heat opened the third with seven quick points — a pair of jumpers by an aggressive Bam Adebayo, plus a corner three by Vincent created by great Miami ball movement — to cut the deficit to 10 less than 90 seconds into the third. Michael Porter Jr. missed a three on the other end, and Miami cleared the rebound, pushing into the frontcourt with a chance to get back within single digits and crank up the pressure on the hosts.

Adebayo pitches to Vincent in the corner, and they flow into a side pick-and-roll. Jokić is playing up at the level of the screen, and Porter goes over the top of it, leaving Adebayo acres of space behind them. This, as Malone noted after the game when discussing Miami’s run in the fourth quarter, is one of the potential drawbacks of playing higher up in the pick-and-roll as opposed to sagging back in drop coverage.

Kyle Lowry, Gabe Vincent, they hit a couple of pull-up threes,” Malone said. “I was imploring our guys, imploring Nikola to be up higher. When you do that, now Bam gets behind you, and you have to trust your low man and trust your weak-side help.”

On this third-quarter play, the low man with weak-side help responsibility is Murray — all 6-foot-4, 215 pounds of him — who has to flash across the lane and prevent the 6-foot-9, 255-pound Adebayo from hammering home a dunk to make it a 9-0 run. And that’s exactly what Murray does, meeting the Heat’s center in the air, contesting the shot without fouling and influencing it just enough to get Bam to miss the bunny.

From there, Denver’s able to push off the miss, giving Murray a lane to attack downhill; Vincent gets the strip, but Murray perseveres, regains possession, goes up strong in traffic and sticks an and-one putback that pushes the lead back to 13. Miami wouldn’t get back within single digits until there was just 2:34 left in the game.

“I think we do a good job defensively just flying around, being on a string — not just tonight but all playoffs, all season,” Murray said. “You can't be the No. 1 seed with just offense. That's hard to do.”

About as hard as guarding a Nuggets team that’s got not only Jokić bossing the game from the block and high post, but also Murray providing the fire to complement the big fella’s ice.

“He's shooting the ball really well, and we all want him to shoot those kind of shots,” Jokić said. “He's really good at mid-range. He's really good at threes, too. But I think as long as he’s aggressive — I think, the whole playoffs, he’s playing really well and creating for himself, and for his teammates, really nice looks.”

The Nuggets sorely missed that combination of creation, shot-making and toughness with Murray on the shelf for the last two postseasons after tearing his left ACL in April 2021. They’ve got it now, though — and it’s helped get them within three wins of the ultimate prize.

Blue Arrow is one of the best guards in the league, and one of the best scorers in the league,” Gordon said. “He has a way about him, he has a discipline about him that, when he's locked in, when he's engaged, he's up there with the best players in the world.”

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