LOS ANGELES – The Denver Nuggets are one win away from the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals.
Jamal Murray, who dominated the fourth quarter of Game 2 and the first half of Game 3, is a key reason the Nuggets are on the doorstep of history.
His path to this moment — from being a breakout star in the bubble to tearing his ACL near the end of the 2021 season and the missed season of recovery — explains a lot about the Nuggets’ culture and why they are here. Denver coach Michael Malone talked about it in response to a postgame question from Rachel Nichols on Saturday.
“For Jamal, the biggest thing this year, Rachel, was getting healthy,” Malone said. “And then being back healthy and getting over the mental hurdle of reminding myself I can get back to not just the level I was at in the bubble, but how do I surpass that?
“I remember being in the bus with him, going to the airport after he did the [ACL] injury in Golden State, and the next day he has tears in his eyes, and that was the message [to him], ‘Hey, man, you’re going to come back from this and not only are you going to come back, you’re going to be better.’ And in that moment, it’s really hard to believe that.
“His first thought was, ‘Man, are you guys gonna trade me?’ Really, that was his [mindset], ‘I’m damaged goods, are you guys can trade me now?’ And I hugged him. I said, ‘Hell no.’ Like, you’re ours. We love you. We’re going to help you get back to maybe a better player for it. And I think what he’s doing in these playoffs, it’s just a reminder of a guy that we drafted seven years ago that has continued to find ways to improve and really show out on the biggest stage in the world.”
This is who the Nuggets are. And this is what makes an elite coach, more than Xs and Os, it’s about creating a culture that brings out the best in each player.
Plenty of teams would have realized they were on the verge of contending when Murray went down — the Nuggets were a trendy pick to make a deep playoff run in the weeks before the 2021 playoffs started, prior to the injury — and made panic moves to win now. Denver didn’t. They let Murray heal, Jokić had time grow, they made sure Michael Porter Jr. got healthy as well, and built out the roster around their core with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown, among others.
They got where they wanted to be, and in part because they were patient and stuck with their guys.