The Denver Nuggets are reaping benefits of Jamal Murray’s maturation as a leader.
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Murray's growth as a leader for the Denver Nuggets this season was perfectly encapsulated in the team's home opener against the Phoenix Suns.
With less than four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the Nuggets were clinging on to a five-point lead against a determined opponent. On an offensive possession for Phoenix, Kelly Oubre Jr tried to feed the hot-handed Frank Kaminsky in the low post for an easy bucket, but Murray expertly read the play.
The Nuggets point guard baited the Suns' forward and leaped up to make a steal. The moment created a fast-break opportunity which led to a three-point play by Malik Beasley on the other end.
Then, with just 27.9 seconds remaining, Murray called for a screen and roll with Nikola Jokic. The played worked to perfection, with Murray receiving the ball at the arc and dishing a pinpoint dime past two defenders for a rolling Jokic who finished at the rim to push the Nuggets' lead to three.
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Although the game would go to overtime, where Denver would win, it signalled Murray's ongoing maturation into a player who can be impactful on both ends of the floor.
In the Nuggets' five wins, his average defensive rating is 96.8. In their two losses, it is 109.2. Through seven games, the team's overall defensive rating is 102.9 (11th in the NBA).
While defensive ratings aren't always the be-all and end-all in gauging a player's defensive effectiveness, Murray saw first-hand in the playoffs how being more proficient in that area can win ball games.
"The playoffs really showed how much they want to target guys. I've never been targeted before. I really wanted to step up my defense night in, night out," Murray said after the win against Phoenix.
"So that's my mindset, just playing defense and trying to be consistent with that."
Through the first six games of 2019-20, the Nuggets haven't found the balance that powered them to 54 wins last season yet. In the 2018-19 campaign, the team's net rating was 4.0 - good for eighth in the NBA. This season, they are 13th in the league in that category, posting a +2.6.
They've gone 2-2 since that Suns matchup, including a loss in New Orleans which was labelled "embarrassing" by head Michael Malone.
To Murray's credit, he has taken accountability in trying to get his team back on track. Following the loss to the Pelicans, Murray rallied his counterparts to find the mentality that saw them come within a game of the Western Conference Finals.
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It was an important moment for Murray and his team-mates, according to Malone. "I give him a lot of credit because he is embracing being a leader," Malone said at Monday's practice.
"He stepped up after the New Orleans game and spoke what was on his mind and on his heart. More importantly, he followed that up with his actions."
Malone was specifically referring to Murray's impressive all-around performance against the Magic this past Sunday. The 22-year-old was all over the floor at the Amway Center and was vocal in getting his team-mates to join him.
When Murray was on the bench, he was consistently encouraging back-up point guard Monte Morris to hound Magic guard DJ Augustin with a fullcourt press.
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"He and we have energy, we can go into any arena and win," he said, before later adding. "Saying it is one thing but going out and doing it is another."