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Jamal Murray's star rises while Kawhi and the Clippers fall to earth

Nuggets teammates Jamal Murray (right) and Nikola Jokic celebrate after beating the Clippers to advance to face the Lakers in the Western Conference final.
Nuggets teammates Jamal Murray (right) and Nikola Jokic celebrate after beating the Clippers to advance to face the Lakers in the Western Conference final.

Canada’s NBA team might be out of the bubble in Orlando, but this country’s best player since Steve Nash continues to pad his resume.

Jamal Murray, born in Kitchener, schooled in Orangeville, has been a key to the Denver Nuggets becoming the first team to rally from a pair of 3-1 series deficits in the same playoffs. From conjuring memories of Allen Iverson against Vince Carter during his 50-point battles against Utah’s Donovan Mitchell, to closing out Kawhi Leonard and the title-favoured Los Angeles Clippers in Game 7 on Tuesday night with 40 points, Murray has made himself a household name worldwide.

“It’s fun to silence everyone,” Murray said afterword before calling out a bunch of big-name media pundits who had doubted the Nuggets, including legends like Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley. “All y’all better start giving this team some damn respect. Because we’ve put in the work. We got a resilient team,” he said.

Murray has done much of the heavy lifting, averaging 27.1 points, 6.4 assists and 5.0 rebounds for the surprising Nuggets, shooting a scorching 49.1% on his three-point attempts and 91.3% from the free throw line. He has four of the five highest-scoring playoff games ever by a Canadian, including the two 50-point breakouts. He has formed a devastating offensive partnership with Nuggets superstar centre Nikola Jokic, who became the first player to ever notch a 20-rebound triple-double in a Game 7. Denver is 7-1 in elimination games over the last two seasons and Murray and Jokic are the reasons. Jokic has a fun, laid-back demeanour, but is a killer on the court. Murray, who set a number of records at storied Kentucky during his lone season there before slipping to seventh in the draft — a major break for Denver — never wavers in his intense, take-no-prisoners approach. When asked after the win over the Clippers how Denver would match up with LeBron James and Anthony Davis Murray stayed true to form by turning the question around and noting that the Lakers would have to match up with himself and Jokic too. Nobody’s been able to solve that pairing yet in the bubble, including the Clippers, who carried themselves like proven, inevitable champions from the day Paul George teamed with Leonard, yet fizzled out in epic fashion. It was reminiscent of when the Miami Heat super-team formed up and guaranteed handfuls of rings, putting off legions of sports fans in the process. That group was humbled, getting drilled by Dallas in the Finals in 2011, before rallying to win two straight titles. Kawhi’s Clippers can only hope they’ll be able to stage a similar renaissance.

Returning to the present, we’ll see what the Lakers can do and if another familiar face around these parts, Danny Green, can help slow down Murray. LeBron is the only player younger than Murray to score 40 points or more in a Game 7. The Nuggets are playing with house money, while the Clippers went all-in, yet now find themselves picking themselves up off the canvas, wondering what hit them like a Mike Tyson opponent in the 1980s.

Leonard and George went 10-for-38 from the field in Game 7, including a stunning 0-for-11 in the fourth quarter. All the Clippers gave to Oklahoma City in order to get George, Leonard’s preferred running-mate, was Canada’s other top player, Hamilton’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a potential all-star in the making, Danilo Gallinari and every first-round pick until nearly three U.S. presidential elections from now (they owe either their own first-round pick or have given Oklahoma City the right to swap picks until 2027).

They might only have one more crack at a title, despite surrendering all of that, since Leonard and George can decide to go elsewhere after next season.

The Raptors expertly managed Leonard, a mercurial presence who requires special attention and treatment and missed many games to make sure he was fresh for the playoffs. The Clippers never seemed to find their togetherness or their top form, something ex-Raptor Lou Williams noted after Game 7 when he said they had championship-level talent, but not championship-level chemistry.

Meanwhile, Denver, helmed by Michael Malone, the former Team Canada assistant coach and the son of original Raptors coach Brendan Malone, kept his ship running tightly even when young forward Michael Porter Jr. spoke out of turn earlier this series about needing the ball more.

So, Murray moves on and Leonard goes home, without a second straight NBA title. The Clippers have still never made it to the conference finals. Only Charlotte and New Orleans can say the same. Kawhi was supposed to change all of that. Instead, Murray continues to grow his legend in Canada — and beyond.


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