The Denver Nuggets started the 2020-21 season with a 1-4 record in their first five games and it took them 15 games to get over .500 for the first time.
It was a much slower start than expected for the 2020 Western Conference runner-ups and with All-Star centre Nikola Jokic playing MVP-calibre basketball since the very first game of the season, the results were puzzling.
During their 2020 playoff run, one thing became clear about the Nuggets: no matter how great Jokic is, this team is going to go as far as the prolific scoring Jamal Murray (Kitchener, ON) will take them. That became even more evident through the first full month of the new season, as Murray's play failed to live up to the astronomically high expectations he set for himself following Denver's spirited push to the Conference Finals in the bubble.
From the start of the season in December through the end of January, Murray was averaging just 18.9 points while shooting 45.5 percent from the field, 35.1 percent from 3-point range and 78.3 percent from the free throw line. While 18.9 points per game would be a career-best for Murray, his efficiency was down and that scoring average was shy of where the Nuggets needed it to be to remain one of the best teams in the West.
One of the main reasons for his offensive shortcomings was a decline in his pull-up shooting. During the height of Murray's 2020 playoff hot streak, NBA.com's Scott Rafferty highlighted how the Canadian guard was knocking down pull-up jumpers at a rate that put him into company with arguably the greatest shooter of all-time, Stephen Curry.
He was far from that to start the season.
In December and January, Murray was shooting 40.0 percent from the field and 33.8 percent from 3 on pull-ups. That decrease in efficiency in the area of his game he relies on most to score the ball could solely be attributed to his early-season struggles.
Murray is known for his ability to enter an unconscious state when it comes to knocking down jumpers, with his elite finishing ability around the rim making his perimeter game that much harder to defend. His quick first step has defenders weary of closing out too hard, knowing that Murray is among the best guards in the NBA at getting to the rim and finishing effectively. According to NBA stats, of all the guards in the league who have attempted at least 50 shots in the restricted area, Murray's 72.3 percent conversion rate ranks fifth. So while his efficiency has remained high in the paint, he was still missing his go-to weapon - the pull-up jumper - to start the season.
Over the last month-plus, that has drastically changed.
From the start of February to the All-Star break, Murray began to take the shape of the explosive scorer we saw in the bubble, and it's no coincidence that his success derived from efficiently knocking down jump shots.
|December and January||8.9||40.0||3.6||33.8|
|February and March||10.1||48.3||4.7||45.7|
So not only is Murray getting more looks, he's converting them at a much higher rate.
In the aforementioned timespan, among all NBA players, only Damian Lillard (13.2 points per game) has averaged more points per game on pull-ups than Murray (11.9 PPG), and Murray has been much more efficient than Lillard. And speaking of efficiency, only Paul George (52.6 percent) has a higher 3-point percentage on pull-ups than Murray (45.7 percent) among players that take at least two attempts per game.
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Since the start of February, Murray's averages have inflated much closer to what his expectations were entering this season. As a result, the Nuggets are starting to heat up quick, pulling themselves right back into top tier of the Western Conference just before the second half of the season.
Denver lost three straight games to begin February, but have since gone 9-4 to put itself six games over .500 heading into the All-Star break. Over that 13-game span, Murray averaged a remarkable 26.9 points, 4.8 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game on shooting splits of .553/.470/.895.
His historic 50-point game in a win over the Cleveland Cavaliers gives you an idea of just how dangerous Murray can be when he's locked in and he rode that momentum, scoring 23 or more points in the last seven games leading into the break, including a pair of 30-point performances.
🏹 Career-high 50 points- NBA (@NBA) February 20, 2021
🎯 21-25 from the field@BeMore27 ERUPTS in the @nuggets win! pic.twitter.com/oZMM1nHEAL
If the Nuggets are going to make another deep playoff run, they will need this version of Murray for the remainder of the season into the playoffs. As previously mentioned, the play of MVP candidate Jokic sets the floor for this Denver squad, but they will only go as far as Jamal Murray takes them.
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