Jamal Murray shot 4-for-18 in the Nuggets’ Game 7 loss to the Trail Blazers last year.
“I didn’t have the game I was supposed to have,” Murray said.
Supposed to have. What a telling glimpse into Murray’s mindset. He was raised to be an NBA star. Anything less was just… wrong.
Well, Murray is having the games he’s supposed to have now.
The Denver guard is the breakout star of the playoffs. He’s averaging 27 points per game while shooting 54% on 2-pointers and 47% on 3-pointers. He’s passing better and playing sharper defense, helping the Nuggets reach the Western Conference finals
Not bad for someone who not only has never been an All-Star, but hasn’t drawn much serious All-Star consideration.
Is this sustainable? Has Murray made The Leap? Or is a streaky player having a well-timed hot stretch? Is he somehow particularly benefitting from the unique conditions of the bubble?
Murray has increased his PER from 17.7 in the regular season to 24.7 in the playoffs. That’s one of the biggest jumps in NBA history – especially among players on such a deep postseason run.
Marcus Camby posted a PER of 17.8 as a rookie with the Raptors and hovered around that mark with the Knicks in his third season. Then, he broke out during New York’s run to the 1999 NBA Finals. The big man played well off the bench then really elevated his game once Patrick Ewing got hurt. He finished with a postseason PER of 24.8.
Camby had several productive seasons with the Knicks and Nuggets afterward. But he never quite matched the hype he built during the 1999 playoffs.
Which is the norm for players who made postseason surges like that.
Here are the largest PER increases from a previous regular-season high to a postseason (minimum: 500 minutes in each segment):
Just four of the 15 players on that chart matched their breakthrough playoff PER in a future regular season:
- As a rookie, Oliver Miller came up big off the bench for the Suns in their run to the 1993 NBA Finals. He continued to improve in his second season then signed a lucrative contract with the Pistons in 1994. But amid weight issues, never sustained his production.
- Anthony Mason began his professional career overseas then spent a couple seasons hopping between minor leagues and deep-bench roles in the NBA. He signed with the Knicks in 1991, played well and got a bigger role the next season. By the 1993 playoffs, he was really clicking. That was truly a sign of things to come. Mason became a quality starter for the Knicks, Hornets and Heat, even making an All-Star team with Miami.
- Danny Ainge really stepped up during Celtics’ legendary run to the 1986 championship. He was in his fifth season and seemed to understand his capabilities as a player. His prime continued from there with Boston then the Kings, Trail Blazers and Suns.
- Gail Goodrich began his career with the Lakers, grew steadily, got picked by the Suns in an expansion draft, made an All-Star team while shooting a lot for a lousy Phoenix team then got traded back to the Lakers. That’s when he really found himself. Goodrich parlayed his strong 1971 playoffs into a higher level of play and four straight All-Star selections with Los Angeles.
Otherwise, these were blips – magical runs that couldn’t be repeated. LeBron James is great. He can’t sustain the 37.4 PER he had during the 2009 playoffs. (For perspective, Giannis Antetokounmpo broke the single-season PER record with a 31.9 this season.)
But could Murray be another exception?
For one, this wasn’t completely out of left field. The Nuggets already gave him a max extension expecting this type of growth. (That might have turned into a super-max extension if All-NBA included the playoffs).
Murray is just 23. This looks somewhat like natural progression.
He has excelled against tough defenses in the Jazz, Clippers and Lakers. Murray wasn’t merely taking advantage of favorable matchups. He’s producing, regardless – though the challenge is rising.
Murray also appeared on the chart last year (as did teammate Nikola Jokic). Murray is clearly improving. Maybe there’s something in his ability to rise to the occasion in the playoffs, too.
On the other hand, some of this is clearly unsustainable. Though Murray is good at making difficult shots, his 47% shooting from beyond the arc will come back down to earth.
Denver’s playoff run will likely end soon, too. Despite the easy 3-1 jokes, the Nuggets will probably fall to the Lakers. There’s a reason Denver’s comebacks against the Jazz and Clippers were so impressive. Teams down 3-1 almost always lose. That’s still true.
But Murray’s run could be just beginning.