Last offseason, after a disappointing second-round playoff exit, Jamal Murray went to Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone and told him it bugged him when Malone called him an inconsistent player.
"He said, 'What bothers me is that you're right. I know I need to be more consistent,'" Malone recalled Tuesday night after the Nuggets' series-saving 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals.
That hasn't been the case in the bubble, where Murray and Nikola Jokic powered the Nuggets back from 3-1 deficits in two consecutive playoff series to reach their first conference finals since 2009. For Murray, that run included two 50-point games in the first round against the Utah Jazz and a 40-point performance in Game 7 of the second round against the Los Angeles Clippers.
On Tuesday, he hit two deep threes to hold off a fourth-quarter Lakers run that cut a lead that was once 20 down to three. The Nuggets got careless, and Rajon Rondo channeled his Boston Celtics days on defense in the second half. But Murray stabilized them late. That's what superstars do, and with every day that goes by, it's harder to make the case that he isn't in that category.
Denver needed those shots—and every one of the rest of Murray's 28 points. A 3-0 deficit would be too much, even for this team, especially with LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the other side. Not after it came heartbreakingly close to winning Game 2 before a miracle buzzer-beater from Davis gave the Lakers a 2-0 lead.
"We had Game 2," Murray said. "We feel like we should be up 2-1 right now."
At times on Tuesday, it seemed like Jokic's otherworldly passing was rubbing off on Murray. The scoring outbursts are nothing new, but Murray also had 12 assists, a playoff career high that included some highlight-worthy behind-the-back looks.
"Jamal is a complete basketball player," Malone said. "He's not just a scorer. He's a playmaker, and he can rebound for his position. And these 16 or 17 playoff games I think are the best stretch of defense that I've ever seen him play."
Arguably no player on any team has seen his profile raised more than Murray in the bubble. First, there were the first-round scoring battles with Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell. Then his part in helping the Nuggets stun the heavily favored Clippers. Now, he's doing it against the Lakers on the biggest stage he's ever been on in his career.
Murray's talent has been obvious to serious basketball observers since he entered the league four years ago. But putting up these numbers on a consistent basis, against the best of the best, with every game on national TV, has made the world take notice. If Murray isn't a true superstar yet, he's certainly getting there.
"When you look at these three series we've played so far, he's starting to get the respect from the other teams, and they're game-planning, they're blitzing him, they're double-teaming," Malone said. "They're giving him so many different looks. And that's what part of being an All-NBA type of player is about."
When Murray signed a five-year max extension with the Nuggets last summer, it represented a bet by the organization that he'd eventually become the player he was capable of being on his best nights. They knew Jokic was a potential future MVP, but after losing to the Portland Trail Blazers in a hard-fought seven-game battle last year, it was obvious they could only become true contenders if Murray reached that level, as well.
The bubble is a strange and unprecedented environment, and no one knows how much of what's happened near Orlando will eventually translate back to the real world. What's clear, though, is that Murray is ready for this moment.
"What's different this year is, I know every night what I'm getting from Jamal," Malone said. "Last year it was, I knew what I was getting from Nikola, but I didn't know what kind of game Jamal would have. That's no longer the case. We have two superstars."
The other one agrees.
"He's built for the big shots," Jokic said. "I really, truly believe he's a superstar."
Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers' Association. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and in the B/R App.