Why the Orlando bubble was 'just the beginning' for Jamal Murray

Editor's note: This story was originally published on April 21. On Thursday, Jamal Murray scored 37 points -- 23 in the fourth quarter -- in Denver's win over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals.

KARL ANTHONY-TOWNS backed down Aaron Gordon in the post, as Jamal Murray was lurking with an eye locked on the Minnesota big man the entire possession. The moment Towns went to pass out of the ensuing double-team by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Murray jumped the passing lane, intercepted the ball and slammed down a thunderous one-handed breakaway dunk.

The highlight jam was the most emphatic part of Murray's 14-point first quarter on Wednesday. But the playoff fireworks hadn't truly begun yet in Game 2 between the Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves. Murray and Anthony Edwards were about to put on a second-half show.

The Wolves erased a 21-point deficit by scoring 40 points in the third quarter. Edwards hit 10 of his 15 shots to score 27 second-half points on his way to 41 points.

But Edwards' best playoff performance to date only lit a fire under Murray. On one third-quarter score, Murray drove to his right and stopped so abruptly that defender Nickeil Alexander-Walker went sliding toward the rim. Then Murray spun and drilled a jumper before pointing toward the Wolves guard to let him know he couldn't be guarded.

"I told him the other day, he looks better than ever," Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. told reporters afterward. "He lives for the playoffs. He lives for moments like these."

Murray was back in his element, in another 40-point playoff duel against a rising star and coming away with the final say. Murray scored 22 points in the second half, including eight in the final 3:45, to finish with 40 points and push the Nuggets to a 2-0 lead in their best-of-seven series against Minnesota.

After Murray authored his fifth career 40-point playoff game -- he is only the third player in NBA history to have more 40-point games in the playoffs than in the regular season (four) -- the exhausted point guard plopped down in his seat on the bench with 11 seconds left as Ball Arena roared in appreciation.

Only a year ago, Murray sat on the bench watching the Golden State Warriors dispatch the Nuggets and Nikola Jokic in five games in the first round after deciding he wasn't ready to return to playoff basketball on his surgically repaired left ACL. Although some fans might've thought otherwise after he showed flashes during pregame warmups through the season, behind the scenes Murray had difficulty navigating steps, let alone being able to chase a Splash Brother all over the court.

"What people don't see is if I can't go up and down the stairs, what makes you think I'm able to guard Stephen Curry?" Murray told ESPN recently after a Nuggets practice.

It's been a grueling climb to this moment. Just over two-and-a-half years ago, inside the Orlando bubble in 2020, Murray's career was exploding. He outlasted Utah's Donovan Mitchell in a first-round duel for the ages and shocked the LA Clippers in the second round, helping Denver make history with two straight comebacks from down 3-1 in a series. The Nuggets' thrilling run ended at the hands of the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals.

Murray looked ready to ascend to superstardom until he crumpled to the floor holding his left knee in a regular-season game at Golden State on April 12, 2021.

Now, after missing two postseasons and enduring just over two years of painful rehab, stiffness, good days followed by multiple bad days, doubts and fear of the unknown, Murray is determined to remind people what he can do on the playoff stage.

As he prepares to play in his first hostile playoff environment since the 2019 playoffs when Denver plays Game 3 at Minnesota (9:30 p.m. ET Friday, ESPN), Murray is ready to prove that "Bubble Murray" isn't some mythological playoff figure and that he and two-time MVP Jokic can be a championship duo.

"People say, 'Oh, that's like vintage [Murray],'" the Denver star told ESPN recently when asked about the moniker "Bubble Murray."

"It's like, I haven't even hit my best. ... I feel like people are making that to be the best that's been seen. And I'm thinking that was just the beginning."

MENTION "BUBBLE MURRAY" to Doc Rivers and the nightmares begin to resurface.

Rivers, who was the Clippers' coach during that disastrous 3-1 collapse to the Nuggets in 2020, doesn't care to relive how Murray scored 40 points in Game 7.

During that incredible bubble tear, Murray accomplished something no one had ever done in a single postseason, scoring 40-plus points in three elimination games (Games 5 and 6 against the Jazz and Game 7 against the Clippers). Murray sank eight clutch-time 3-pointers, the second most in a single postseason over the past 25 years, trailing only Curry's nine in 2016, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

"I hope I never see that again," Rivers said with a laugh before facing the Nuggets on March 27. "That's why I'm here [with the Sixers]. I mean, my gosh. He was amazing."

Whenever Reggie Jackson ran into Murray around the Gran Destino Tower at the Walt Disney World Resort during the NBA restart in the bubble, he saw the same thing whether the Nuggets guard was walking in the hotel hallway, sitting down for food or in the elevator.

"An assassin," Jackson, a former Clippers point guard and current Murray teammate, told ESPN. "... [Each time] I saw him, very military-like, locked in ... he's walking out of the tunnel, he doesn't see anybody. He only has one thing locked on his mind.

"Really locked in on the mission."

Even inside the NBA bubble, Murray formed his own protective shell. He was all business. And everything felt enhanced in the league's unique playoff environment that year.

"There's no crowd," Murray said of the fan-less games. "So all the trash-talking, you're hearing a little more, a little louder ... you feel it a little more. And so I was just keeping my own bubble. And seeking targets, just playing my game and seeking out matchups."

Murray regularly practices meditation to block out all negative energy and distractions. But he seems to find a different level of Zen in the playoffs. Whether it is facing Damian Lillard, Mitchell, Kawhi Leonard or now Edwards, Murray raises his game when there's more on the line.

He has averaged 24.7 points in his playoff career compared with the 16.9 points he has averaged during the regular season. That 7.8-point difference is the largest for any player in NBA history with a minimum of 20 playoff games, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. During his first postseason run in 2019, Murray averaged 21.3 points before the Nuggets lost to the Blazers in seven games in the second round.

In his second postseason, in the Orlando bubble, Murray scored 142 points in Games 4 through 6 during the Nuggets' 3-1 comeback against the Jazz. Only Michael Jordan and Jerry West had scored as much over a three-game playoff span. He matched Mitchell's scintillating moves by scoring 50 points twice in the series, joining Mitchell, Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Allen Iverson as the only players with multiple 50-point games in a single postseason.

And he was just one of four players in NBA history to ever average 30 points on 50/50/90 shooting splits in a playoff series.

The legend of "Bubble Murray" was born as he averaged 26.5 points, 6.6 assists and 4.8 rebounds and shot 50.5% from the field, including 45.3% from 3.

"That's in his DNA," Porter said of Murray's playoff heroics. "That is what he is built for. And he just loves those moments."

Murray, though, looked like a far different player when he finally returned to the court Oct. 19, 2022, after missing all of the 2021-22 season.

Murray didn't feel like himself, either. He was tentative, worried about taking a wrong step or landing awkwardly on someone else's foot or taking an unnecessary hit to his knee, especially when driving to the rim. He "clearly wasn't comfortable" and scored 12 points in 26 minutes in a loss at Utah.

"I sucked," Murray said. "I wasn't me. My first games back, what do you expect? I remember, I think we played at Chicago and I told Coach -- I was like 0-for-5 in the first quarter -- 'Damn, I just feel like I am out of place.' Everything felt new in a way."

Jokic did his best to lower the temperature surrounding his teammate's return at the start of the season, telling reporters, "I know he's gonna be really bad for the next 20 games, but we're gonna survive."

With Porter, who also missed that 2022 first-round loss to Golden State, returning from a back injury and new players such as Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown fitting in, Jokic improved on his back-to-back MVP campaigns by nearly averaging a triple-double this season. The Nuggets took control of first place in the West, easing the pressure on Murray to find his form.

The point guard might've had his best stretch of the season during an eight-game span from Jan. 18 to Feb. 4 when he averaged 28.0 points, 7.6 assists and 4.6 rebounds while shooting 80-for-154 (51.9%) from the field.

"He was playing at the same level he was in the bubble," Denver coach Michael Malone said.

Murray, though, then missed six games with soreness in his right knee before returning after the All-Star break. While that injury was not to his surgically repaired knee, the point guard sometimes felt as if he was riding an emotional roller coaster of what he could do one day and then what he couldn't do the next throughout his comeback.

"I would have a day where I'm sore," Murray said. " Then there's days where I go punch out somebody. I want that feeling over and over again. So it was definitely like we have those days where I feel unstoppable.

"I'm on a couple painkillers for the pain. I noticed that without the pain, if I go practice right now, I'm good. No worries. And then there's days obviously where's it's like, damn, it's really sore and it sucks to cut."

But Murray is experiencing those sore days less and less. And when they do come, he says he bounces back stronger from them than he did before.

His confidence was also showing in the weeks leading up to the playoffs. After scoring 18 of his 26 points in the first quarter of a 129-106 win over the Bucks on March 25, he was asked about calling Jrue Holiday perhaps the toughest defender he has had to face yet still being able to score against Milwaukee.

Murray reminded everyone, "I know what I'm doing."

"So don't forget that."

AS SERBIAN MUSIC blared in the background and Nuggets staffers ate, drank and danced into the night inside a cottage in Sombor, Serbia, last May, Jokic took a moment away from his second straight MVP trophy celebration to take a FaceTime call from half a world away.

"[Murray] called, and I obviously appreciated that he did that," Jokic told ESPN. "He was happy for me to win the MVP."

Understandably, the details of the call are hazy to Jokic, given the festive night. But the call was just another example of the bond between Murray and Jokic.

On the court, however, the two don't even need to look at each other to know exactly where the other is. Having been teammates in Denver since 2016-17 and knowing each other even before that from international basketball play, Jokic and Murray are one of the NBA's most prolific connections, especially in the playoffs, when they are handing the ball off to each other or screening for one another at a record pace.

During the Nuggets' 2020 run to the Western Conference finals, Murray and Jokic combined for 174 handoffs, generating 8.1 points per game, the most of any combination in a single postseason over the past 10 years, according to Second Spectrum.

Their connection didn't seem to skip a beat this season. Murray and Jokic assisted to one another 255 times, the most of any duo in the NBA.

"Oh man, it's unreal to watch," Jackson said of the Murray-Jokic tandem. "... [It's like they] have these cross-wave thoughts without necessarily talking about them."

Jokic enjoyed his greatest personal success when Murray was recovering from his knee surgery, but he is more than ready to have his point guard and finisher back after losing in the second round and first round, respectively, the past two postseasons.

"Of course, I missed Jamal in the playoffs the last two years," Jokic said. "We've grown so accustomed [to] playing with each other over the years that not having him in late-game situations was different and made the game harder without him on the court."

In the third quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers last month, Rivers must've had bubble flashbacks as Murray found Jokic for three assists in less than four minutes, including flicking a highlight one-handed pass to a cutting Jokic, who beat P.J. Tucker for a layup.

"We just play off each other so well with no rigidness," Murray said. "We just flow, and that's what makes it tough to guard. ... It's just really fun. We've developed this chemistry over time and just a bond playing together.

"That was what made it easier [returning from injury]. Being out there with him, it was so natural. ... We know exactly what we're looking for, and I know what he wants to do. He knows what I want to do."

After Murray led the Nuggets with 24 points, 8 assists and 8 rebounds in Game 1 against the Timberwolves, then followed that up with 40 points in Game 2, the back-to-back MVP noted how Murray was the Nuggets' "No. 1" go-to guy in the playoffs.

"I think he is playing now better than in the bubble," Jokic said after Game 2. "Yes, maybe he scored a lot more points in [the] bubble or whatever. But I think his energy is much better. His leadership, just being [locked] into the game is much more on a high level."

Murray had a mental checklist heading into his playoff return. He wanted to get acclimated to the intensity again, the adrenaline and, most importantly, absorbing that first physical playoff blow and shaking it off. After he got that out of the way, he went into Game 2 feeling "more relaxed and composed," and able to "just play my game."

The result of his duel with Edwards was just the sixth instance in NBA postseason history when opposing players 26 or younger each scored 40 in the same game. Murray is becoming accustomed to these playoff faceoffs, having been involved in three of them (Edwards, plus Mitchell twice).

"When guys elevate their game, that shows who you are," Murray said. "If you're going to back down or ... fight and challenge them."

Murray is eager to back up the Nuggets' top seed after other teams, such as the defending champion Warriors and the Phoenix Suns with Kevin Durant, drew more attention entering this postseason.

"We all know everybody doubts us," Murray said. "... We're No. 1 in the West all season, so the talk all season, can they do it in the playoffs? Yes. We've done it in the playoffs [before].

"We've gone to the Western Conference finals more than a lot of [other] guys have. So, we are going to get back there and further."

Murray is back where he's happiest and is ready to create new playoff memories.

"I got mixed feelings," Murray said of the moniker "Bubble Murray." "Because people only refer to me as like that's a different person. I don't like to refer to that time as a different person. That's me two years ago. And I feel like I'm better now.

"I'm still the same guy. Same killer instinct. Seeing things a little slower now, knowing where I can get my shot, have the confidence to get my shot. My team has confidence in me. I'm in a good place mentally."