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NBA Finals: How Nuggets’ Jamal Murray has excelled in NBA playoffs after ACL injury

With tears in his eyes, Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray asked coach Michael Malone a direct question.

The inquiry captured Murray’s vulnerability after injuring the ACL in his left knee during the final month of the 2020-21 NBA season.

“I am damaged goods,” Murray told Malone. “Are you going to trade me now?”

The moment then captured the Nuggets’ loyalty to Murray after selecting him at No. 7 in the 2016 NBA Draft and seeing him blossom into one of the league’s most dynamic point guards.

“Hell no, you’re ours,” Malone answered. “We love you. We’re going to help you get back, and you’re going to be a better player for it.”

Nearly two years later, Malone’s prediction came true.

Murray missed the remainder of the 2020-21 campaign and all of 2021-22 while rehabbing his surgically repaired knee. That contributed to the Nuggets experiencing early playoff exits in the second round (Phoenix in 2021) and in the first round (Golden State in 2022). Yet, the Nuggets have advanced to their first NBA Finals in franchise history largely because of how Murray has fared in his first season following his injury.

First, Murray helped the Nuggets finish with the Western Conference’s best regular-season record (53-29) by averaging 20.0 points while shooting 45.4% overall and 39.8% from 3-point range along with a career-high 6.2 assists. Those numbers nearly resembled his output before his injury (21.2 points on 47.7% shooting and 40.8% from deep and 4.8 assists).

Secondly, Murray enters Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Miami Heaton Thursday (8:30 pm ET, ABC) averaging post-season career-highs in points (27.7) and 5.5 (rebounds) along with stellar marks in assists (6.1) and shooting percentage (48% overall, 39.8% from 3.

“Every month I feel my knee gets better, more solid and more consistent in the way it’s going to feel,” Jamal Murray said. “We’ve prepared for this. I’m just glad I put the work in during the rehab to be able to perform and be at my best.”

That contrasted starkly to how Murray felt when he tore his ACL in his left knee against Golden State on April 12, 2021.

Only eight months before that, Murray became a big catalyst with helping the Nuggets advance to the 2020 Western Conference Finals in the NBA bubble after overcoming 3-1 series deficits both to the Utah Jazz and LA Clippers. After averaging 26.5 points along with post-season career highs in field-goal percentage (50.5%), 3-point shooting (45.3%) and assists (6.6), Murray expected to become a multi-year All-Star and help Denver soon win its first NBA title. He had to put those dreams on hold.

Related: How better health led Denver Nuggets to a historic NBA Finals run

Jamal Murray’s injury, recovery and impact on the Denver Nuggets

denver nuggets, jamal murray, nba finals
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

“He pretty much thought he was invincible, but he wasn’t,” Nuggets general manager Calvin Booth told Sportsnaut.  “This was the first time for him that he had to confront the fact that he wasn’t invincible.”

Booth considered Murray’s setback to be “a wake-up call for everybody.” That’s because the Nuggets marveled at how Murray logged a high participation rate in 2016-17 (82 games), 2017-18 (81) and 2018-19 (75). Murray missed 13 contests in 2019-20 while recovering quickly from various minor ailments. As Booth said, “he’s so tough that he’ll play through anything.”

Murray stayed patient, however, with healing an ACL injury that typically takes 12-18 months of recovery. Malone acknowledged that “there was some hope that Jamal would be able to play” during the 2021 NBA playoffs, but he added that Murray “wasn’t there physically and mentally.” Malone stressed the Nuggets’ front office, coaching staff and training staff “supported him 1,000 percent.” 

“If Jamal was like, ‘We’re going to work and I feel good, then we would’ve thought, ‘Let’s see what we can do,’” said Felipe Eichenberger, the Nuggets’ director of performance and head strength-and-conditioning coach, told Sportsnaut. “But it didn’t work out. We never said, “You have to come back.’ We determined, ‘Let’s wait a little bit longer and come back the proper way.’”

That proper way entailed what Murray described as “some ups and downs.”

Murray flashed his explosiveness when he threw down a reverse dunk in early November over two Oklahoma City defenders. Murray revealed his limitations when he missed a combined seven games to manage his left knee and sat for part of back-to-back slates until Feb. 26, 2023. Murray displayed his consistency when he posted similar numbers in November (20.0 points on 45.9% shooting, 5.7 assists), December (18.7 points on 42.9% shooting, 6.9 assists and January (22.1 points on 48.1% shooting, 5.8 assists).

Murray showed more vulnerability when he missed five consecutive games in February to treat inflammation in his right knee.

Related: Why the Denver Nuggets view Aaron Gordon as crucial piece to an NBA title

During those times, Booth often told Murray that he likens him to “a marathon runner.” The reason? Booth argued “the first few miles can be kind of rough” before a runner finally breaks ground in the middle and at the end of the race. That played out the same way for Murray, who has tied Michael Jordan’s output in the 1997 NBA playoffs for the second-most 20-point plus performances in the fourth quarter (four).

Murray has also posted a 40-point performance and six 30-point games out of a possible 15 post-season contests.

“I’m healthy. That’s it,” Murray said. “I see the game a little slower, I think, and I’m not as rushed. I’d probably say I take my time a little more, even if it’s just a couple more dribbles, just not to turn it over or put somebody else in a bad spot if I pass it. So I would say it’s been about just slowing the game down and also getting to watch the game from afar for a couple seasons.”

Murray’s successful return does not surprise the Nuggets. They expect Murray will continue to write more chapters to his come-back journey before hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy.

“I love Jamal Murray,” Malone said. “This is not just like I’m coaching him. We’ve been together seven years and have been through a lot of ups and downs. To see him back playing at the level he’s playing at, the first thought for me is just tremendous pride. I’m just so happy for him because I saw the dark days coming back from that ACL.”

One of those dark days entailed Malone reassuring Murray during one of his most vulnerable moments, an incident that projected an eventual happy ending.

Follow NBA insider Mark Medina on Twitter and on Instagram.

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