Murray's first seven playoff quarters featured frigid shooting, but he heated up when Denver needed him most. His 21-point fourth-quarter eruption Tuesday produced a shocking 114-105 win over the San Antonio Spurs in Game 2, salvaged a series split and may have saved Denver's postseason.
There's still a long way to go in this first-round series with the Spurs, who held double-digit leads in Games 1 and 2. It'd be a mistake to say the Nuggets are in the clear. But Murray's eruption, which featured eight consecutive made buckets after an 0-of-8 start from the field, felt like something bigger than a one-off late-game takeover.
For starters, it was a study in the power of confidence. Because you have to be self-assured to take shots like this while you're staring down an 0-2 hole against a No. 7 seed:
Murray hit exceptionally difficult shots during his incendiary run—shots that players get benched for attempting. In the wake of his no-show up until the fourth quarter, a lot of coaches never would have given him the chance to take those shots.
If Nuggets head coach Mike Malone had turned away from Murray after his 8-of-23 (0-of-6 from deep) performance in Game 1, it would have been understandable. And if Malone had relied instead on Gary Harris, who scored 23 points on 10-of-16 shooting in Game 2, or Malik Beasley, who heated up in spurts during both contests of this series, nobody would have questioned it.
But Malone seemed to understand there was more at stake:
That wide-lens approach is rarely employed in the win-now environment of postseason basketball. But much of the immediate reaction to Murray's explosion seemed to apply a similar focus on the big picture.
It's easy to get hyperbolic when you've just watched someone set the nets ablaze for an entire quarter, but the consistent placement of Murray's efforts into a broader context felt right.
That's because the Nuggets aren't an ordinary No. 2 seed. Skepticism was attached to this young team even before it fell to the Spurs in Game 1 over the weekend. That loss validated critics' concerns about Denver's lack of experience and its uncharacteristically deferential superstar, Nikola Jokic.
In seizing Game 2 like a conventional star would—by scoring and scoring and scoring—Murray quieted some of those doubts and offered a glimpse of Denver's ceiling.
Jokic isn't wired for a takeover like that. He's a passer first, and a gifted scorer (at a plodding pace) when he has to be. Since Jokic's emergence, Denver has badly needed a reliable high-volume gunner.
Murray's first seven playoff quarters negate the "reliable" part. Streaky might be the first word you'd use to describe him. But he's barely 22, and when a player is as obviously skilled and unafraid of the moment as he is, trusting natural development to produce more highs and fewer lows feels like a safe bet.
And if Murray uses this performance as a springboard, his pairing with Jokic could turn the Nuggets into something special.
You could see some of that Tuesday, as Jokic did everything within his considerable facilitating powers to spring his scorching teammate. Jokic assisted only one of Murray's eight fourth-quarter buckets, but he set screens, hunted handoffs and got out of the way.
It's strange to imagine Jokic, an All-NBA talent who rang up 21 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists in Game 2, as a sidekick. He's far better than that. But Jokic's game revolves around subtlety and skill. He exploits weaknesses with his passing and patience. He picks apart a defense's frailties with precision and guile. He operates with a scalpel, but it sometimes feels like he gets queasy at the sight of blood.
Murray is the Nuggets' much-needed butcher, delighting in the carnage of cutting a defense apart with bold, aggressive hacks.
Murray needed a breakthrough moment to get his postseason going, and Denver needed it ahead of a trip to San Antonio for two games that could have ended its season if Game 2 hadn't played out like it did.
Back to that big picture again, though: Murray's role in the win illustrated what this team could become.
With young squads like Denver, you focus on the ceiling. You ask what's possible if everything breaks right over a three- or four-year timeline.
If this version of Murray shows up a bit more often, the Nuggets' long-term upside is difficult to comprehend. He fills a specific shot-making, devil-may-care, ultraconfident void in the team's makeup when he goes off like this. He allows Jokic to be himself, and he permits other role players to organize themselves around a one-two punch.
He just makes everything clearer.
Yes, consistency will matter. Murray wouldn't have needed to catch fire to save Denver if he was lukewarm rather than ice cold earlier in the game. But let's not minimize the moment.
Murray's arrival could double as Denver's takeoff on a yearslong journey of success.