Jamal Murray and Nuggets survive Jazz and a crazy Game 7 finish

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Murray’s Denver Nuggets barely survived with an 80-78 victory in Game 7 on Tuesday, sending home Mitchell’s Utah Jazz from the NBA’s Disney World bubble after a fierce first-round playoff series that saw the two rising stars combine for four 50-point games. To advance, Denver rode Murray’s scoring exploits to dig out of a 3-1 series deficit and then held its breath throughout a chaotic closing sequence that won’t soon be forgotten.

With 17.4 seconds left and Denver up by two, Utah inbounded to Mitchell, who had the ball stolen as he drove to the hoop. The Nuggets raced the other way but chose not to dribble out the clock or wait for the Jazz to foul. Murray drove hard at the hoop in transition and, with eight seconds left, passed the ball to his right to Torrey Craig, who promptly blew the layup.

Utah secured the rebound and went racing back the other direction, feeding the ball to Mike Conley on the left wing. The veteran point guard pulled up for a three-pointer just before the buzzer, and his potential game-winner rimmed around and out as time expired. Mitchell collapsed to the court, where he remained until Murray eventually came over for a hug.

The frenetic endgame left all parties, who appeared spent throughout a low-scoring Game 7, in stunned disbelief. Mitchell fought back tears at his news conference. After receiving a hero’s welcome as he entered the Nuggets’ locker room, Murray walked through the hallway and muttered to no one in particular, “If we had lost the game because of that …”

Denver, brimming with relief, tried to pass the buck for its near-catastrophic lapse of judgment in the final seconds. Coach Michael Malone was doused with water by Murray during his postgame interview, but told reporters, “I don’t know what Jamal was doing on the layup to Torrey Craig, but we’ll talk about that a different time.”

Murray, in turn, joked that “Torrey missing the layup” — rather than his duel with Mitchell — would be his enduring memory of the series. Craig popped into the media room to defend his honor: “To be fair, I thought [Murray] was going to score. My bad!” Meanwhile, Nikola Jokic dryly ruminated on the alternate ending.

“We are laughing right now but it could be tragic,” the all-star center said.

Their jubilation was only possible because of the 23-year-old Murray, who scored 50 points in Game 4, 42 points in Game 5, and 50 points in Game 6 to tie the series. The fourth-year Canadian guard, who turned pro in 2016 after his freshman season at the University of Kentucky, has elevated his reputation in the bubble more than any player besides Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic.

Murray generated little attention as an all-star candidate this season, and he has been largely defined by his inconsistent play. During last year’s playoffs, he alternated between sensational and spotty, providing fodder to both supporters and skeptics. Malone has spent years riding the ups and downs, centering the offense on Jokic and trying to build Murray’s confidence. The payoff came over the past two weeks, with Murray, whose game has always been predicated on his outside shooting, getting red hot.

“The young man is growing up and turning into a superstar on the biggest stage,” Malone said after Game 5.

Like many of his peers, Murray was profoundly affected by the Jacob Blake police shooting in Kenosha, Wis. last week and he’s been wearing Adidas sneakers with pictures of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor throughout the bubble. Following protests led by the Milwaukee Bucks that prompted a three-day shutdown of professional basketball, Murray dedicated his 50-point explosion in Game 6 to the social justice movement.

“In life, you find things that hold value to you,” Murray said during a tearful interview with TNT after Game 6. “Things to fight for. We found something worth fighting for as an NBA, as a collective unit. I use these shoes as a symbol to keep fighting. These shoes give me life. Even though these people are gone, they help me find strength.”

Moments later, cameras captured him crouching in the tunnel to the locker room as he tried to gather his emotions.

That pain and grief gave way to elation two days later. Nuggets staffers shouted “Victory!” on their way to the buses. Murray basked in the biggest moment of his career and put off thoughts about an impending second-round date with the Los Angeles Clippers, who are more talented, more experienced and more rested. No one will be surprised if the Nuggets’ ride ends soon, given that the Clippers have a cast of perimeter defenders to rotate on Murray and a pair of franchise wings in Kawhi Leonard and Pal George who pose matchup nightmares.

Still, Denver’s triumph over Utah is about what’s possible over the next five years, not what might happen over the next two weeks. Jokic and Murray are both locked into their second contracts, and they figure to be all-NBA candidates throughout their primes. The Nuggets, who have made the conference finals just once in the past 25 years, suddenly have a chance to be a perennial factor in the postseason. Jokic makes them very good; Jokic and Murray together can make them great.

When Murray entered the 2016 draft — at the height of the Golden State Warriors revolution — he was pitched by some optimistic analysts as an heir to Stephen Curry due to his deep shooting range, ballhandling skills and slight frame. Such comparisons are unfair to both Curry and Murray, but the latter now has teams harboring draft day regrets just like the former.

The Minnesota Timberwolves, who famously passed on Curry twice in 2009, selected Kris Dunn over Murray. The Phoenix Suns, who have needed a long-term solution at point guard since trading Steve Nash in 2012, took Dragan Bender instead of Murray. The Sacramento Kings, forever in search of a marketable face, grabbed Buddy Hield rather than Murray, who fell to Denver at No. 7. All three franchises missed the playoffs this year and last, while Murray has begun work on his postseason résumé.

Yet Tuesday’s thriller was a reminder that Murray, for all his upside and fearlessness, is still capricious. Had Conley’s jumper rolled in, Murray’s incredible series would have gone for naught. With an unfriendly bounce, Murray’s decision to take off running would have been red meat for talking heads. Only a stroke of good fortune kept him from knowing Mitchell’s pain.

“Respect to the Utah Jazz and respect to Donovan,” Murray said, his head spinning from a crazy final play and an even crazier series. “It was a great battle. I don’t know what else to say. I’m speechless.”

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