Jamal Murray starts to find his footing in NBA, just in time to help lift Nuggets

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Consistency. Defensive game plan discipline. Physicality.

That is what Denver Nuggets coach Mike Malone is preaching to his young stars coming out of the All-Star break. He and the team are making no bones about it, they want the eighth seed in the playoffs (the Nuggets currently hold that spot, with Portland and others three games back). Denver wants to get invited to the dance.

“(Getting the eighth seed) is talked about a lot, that’s our main goal right now, just stay consistent and make the playoffs,” Nuggets rookie Jamal Murray told NBCSports All-Star weekend while signing Panini trading cards. “We’re just trying to play consistent right now and it’s tough, there are a lot of good teams in the West.”

Murray is a big part of that push — Malone is giving him more and more responsibility on the court as Emmanuel Mudiay’s role fades. So far, Murray has been up to everything asked of him, which is why his name is coming up in the Rookie of the Year discussion. (With Joel Embiid playing just 31 games, Murray and the Bucks Malcolm Brogdon have emerged as the primary alternatives.)

“I enjoy playing the point, I enjoy running the team, reading the play, leading the team, I just try to make sure coach trusts me and can go to me down the stretch,” Murray said. “I do everything at the point. I like to score, but I like to get assists, I like when my team does good and plays for each other.”

It’s a lot asked of him, which is why All-Star weekend was a break in what has been a whirlwind rookie season for Murray. Although that weekend in New Orleans was a bit of a whirlwind in and of itself.

Murray was the MVP of the All-Star weekend Rising Stars Challenge on Friday night dropping 36, plus he spent the weekend connecting with fans and being at things such as a Panini trading card signing. Murray is just one of a select handful of rookies Panini is working with, and he was signing cards his new cards just about to hit the market, and helping promote the soon-to-be launched Panini Instant mobile app, which will feature mobile e-cards for fans.

“It’s a chance to connect with the fans, put on a show at the gae, and I had a lot of fun with fans all weekend,” Murray said.

Murray is at ease in these settings, comfortable with the fanfare that comes with being a rising NBA star.

The adjustment to the NBA was not that simple.

Murray — who set a record at Kentucky for most made threes in a season — started his career 0-of-17 from the floor for the Nuggets. He didn’t knock down his first field goal until Nov. 5. When asked who he leaned on through a rough start in the NBA, he points to his father, standing about 12 feet away.

“Once I made my first shot it was all fine,” Murray said. “It was a struggle to make that first one, just thinking too much, and your confidence goes down when you’re not making them and you’re expected to score…

“Everyone was just telling me shoot the ball, it will fall. They knew I was going to make shots at some point so (my teammates and coaches) weren’t mad about it or anything.”

A lot of players struggle to adjust at first to the speed and athleticism of the NBA game, and Murray has been no exception. He continues to have his ups and downs.

“Just getting used to the physicality, guys are more athletic and stronger and they’re grown men,” Murray said. “You’ve just got to adjust to it and work on your body, get used to everything.”

Murray’s dad, Roger Murray, agreed that getting his son stronger to handle the contact and the punishment that comes with driving the lane in the league needs to be at the heart of his off-season program. Roger is a father, mentor, and coach who set his son on this path long ago. For the Murrays it was always about basketball — even when Roger signed Jamal up for martial arts classes as a kid he said it was about hoops.

“I was thinking basketball. I wanted him to put everything together, the mental and the physical, I knew it would help him,” Roger said.

That path has landed Jamal in a good NBA place — Denver has a quality young core with Murray, Gary Harris, Juan Hernangomez, and the emerging star that is Nikola Jokic (who has had back-to-back triple-doubles since the All-Star break).

“He’s so unselfish, and he doesn’t just find one person, he finds everybody, and he picks his spots (to score),” Murray said of Jokic.

As a team, the young Nuggets are focused right now on making the playoffs. That will start with playing better team defense, which Murray said is really about them staying focused on the game plan and knowing their opponents better — which guys do you go under the pick on, which guys get iced off the pick-and-roll, just a lot of decisions that require the kind of focus young players often struggle to do consistently.

Beyond that, Murray has dreams of playing in the Tokyo Olympics for Canada.

“That’s one of my big goals, to play in the Olympics and make some noise there as well, but whatever opportunity is given me I will take,” Murray said.

But for now the focus for Murray is on the court — it’s always about basketball.

Grizzlies beat slumping Pacers, who fall into tie for final playoff spot

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Mike Conley matched his career high with seven 3-pointers on his way to 36 points, helping the Memphis Grizzlies rout the Indiana Pacers 110-97 on Wednesday night.

Vince Carter had 21 points and eight rebounds, and Zach Randolph finished with 17 points as Memphis snapped a four-game losing streak. Conley went 13 for 21 from the field.

Paul George led the Pacers with 22 points, Aaron Brooks, who provided an early spark from outside the arc, had 18 points, and Thaddeus Young finished with 16.

Indiana lost for the fourth time in five games.

Memphis played without All-Star center Marc Gasol, who missed his third straight game with a left foot strain. But Conley helped the Grizzlies get off the fast start, and Pacers were never able to catch up.

Memphis led by as many as 22 in the second quarter and carried a 72-53 advantage into the break. Conley scored 22 points in the first half, and the Grizzlies went 10 for 17 from beyond the arc in the first two periods.

Brooks made four 3-pointers and scored 14 in the first half for Indiana.

The Grizzlies led 96-79 after three, and the sliding Pacers never threatened in the fourth.

Indiana (37-38) dropped into a tie with Miami for the last spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Both are two games behind Milwaukee and Atlanta.

The Heat, Bucks and Hawks all won Wednesday night.

TIP-INS

Pacers: Brooks made a 3-pointer in the first quarter to reach 800 for his career. … Indiana dropped to 0-8 in road games on the second night of a back-to-back.

Grizzlies: JaMychal Green was out with left shoulder soreness. That caused Memphis to use its 22nd different starting lineup this season. … Memphis scored 38 points in the first quarter, matching its highest point total for any quarter this season. … Memphis has made at least 10 3-pointers in 36 games. … In the third quarter, Carter passed Ray Allen (24,505) for 22nd in NBA history for career points scored. … Reserve guard Andrew Harrison left in the third quarter with a right ankle injury.

PACERS HOMECOMINGS

Pacers forward Thaddeus Young played high school basketball in Memphis and still lives there. Pacers guard Monta Ellis has a home in the Eads community east of Memphis.

HOME STRETCH

Memphis (41-34), which sits seventh in the Western Conference playoff race, has a beneficial schedule down the stretch. Of its seven remaining games, five are at home, and five are against teams with losing records.

UP NEXT

Pacers: Visit Toronto on Friday.

Grizzlies: Host the Dallas Mavericks on Friday.

Three Mavericks teammates restrain Devin Harris, who still gets ejected (video)

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Dallas guard Devin Harris was ejected from Wednesday night’s 121-118 loss to New Orleans after angrily protesting calls made by official Ben Taylor.

Harris was assessed two quick technical fouls by Taylor, the first after Harris protested Taylor’s decision to whistle him for a personal foul when he collided with Pelicans’ guard Jordan Crawford.

The impact with Crawford sent Harris crashing to the court, marking the second time in the period that Harris had gone down hard. The first time, no foul was called when a collision with Pelicans’ guard E'Twaun Moore left Harris flat on his back.

When Harris was assessed the first technical, he went into a tirade and had to be restrained by teammates as he advanced toward Taylor. That triggered his ejection.

Bucks’ Malcolm Brogdon beats shot clock, Celtics with dagger (video)

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Who should win Rookie of the Year?

Joel Embiid has been, by far, the best rookie while on the court, but a season-ending injury will limit him to just 31 games. Malcolm Brogdon has been next best over the full course of the season. Dario Saric is making a heck of a finishing kick, and with a couple weeks left, he can still catch Brogdon.

But Brogdon got his own late signature moment in the Bucks’ 103-100 win over the Celtics tonight.

With the Bucks up one in the final seconds and the shot clock nearing expiration, Brogdon hit an off-balance jumper with 3.9 seconds left to produce the final margin.

Milwaukee’s win drops Boston (48-27) to second in the Eastern Conference, behind only the Cavaliers (47-26). The Bucks (39-36) keep pace with the Hawks in a tie for fifth.

Russell Westbrook scores most points ever in triple-double, 57

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Russell Westbrook led a double-digit comeback in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. Been there done, that.

Westbrook hit a defining buzzer-beating 3-pointer. Been there done, that.

Westbrook posted a historic triple-double. Been there, done that.

All three in one game?

That’s a new level for Westbrook, who lifted the Thunder to a 114-106 win over the Magic tonight while posting an incredible stat line: 57 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists.

James Harden scored 53 in a triple-double just this season, and Westbrook has already one-upped that record.

This MVP race is one for the ages.