JAMAL Murray’s 26-point, 10-assist night in the 104-93 Denver Nuggets win over the Miami Heat on Thursday (Friday, June 2, 2023 PH time) almost seemed incidental for a team that features a player averaging a triple-double in these playoffs in Nikola Jokic, who has the skills to make every player on the roster a threat.

And yet, anybody following the Nuggets for a while knows it has been Murray’s return to full health—and his return to the playoffs for the first time in three seasons—that has been a catalyst in the run they’re on.

“He’s a three-level scorer. He can shoot the 3. He can pull up and get to the rim,” said Heat guard Haywood Highsmith, describing the challenge of slowing Murray. “He’s a crafty player, and has a good handle. He’s in good condition.”

“Loved his pace tonight, just the pace that he played all night long,” Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon said. “The tempo that he played at, controlling the game and controlling the flow of the game was great.”

For the record, Murray’s turnaround fadeaway over Highsmith—the jumper of the night—came with 3:27 left, raised the Denver lead to 14 after another mini-flurry from the Heat and put to rest any doubt about the outcome.

It also served as yet another reminder that if they Heat are going to have any chance of containing the Nuggets over the rest of this series, they’ll have to account for the player who has never made an All-Star game and never received an MVP vote but is every bit as key to Denver’s success as the player who has, Jokic.

“He’s a dynamic scorer. He poses threats in different ways and he’s relentless,” said Miami guard Gabe Vincent. “It will be a tall task, and we’ll continue to work at it.”

Murray went down in a game at Golden State and tore up his knee late in the 2020-21 season, an injury that forced him to miss the ’21 playoffs and all of last year. Even with Jokic winning the MVP in both of those seasons, the Nuggets got swept out of the ’21 conference semifinals by the Suns and demolished by the Warriors in the first round in ’22.

By then, the phrase “Bubble Murray”—an homage to his breakthrough during the 2020 playoffs in the Covid bubble in Orlando—was becoming popular. He has grown tired of that label, and of the question of whether “Bubble Murray” would ever show up again once he returns to full health.

Answer: Yes.

He has averaged 27.6 points and 6.2 assists over 16 playoff games this year, surpassing his regular-season numbers by 7.6 and 1.4. Counting 2019 and 2020, Murray increases his scoring by 33 percent and his assists by 13 percent in the postseason. He is, in short, building a reputation as one of those special players who come up biggest when the lights are brightest. (AP)