Nuggets defeat Celtics in NBA thriller

By Daniel Oriyasin

The Nuggets continued their blistering start to the season last night, defeating the Celtics 115-107 in the Pepsi Center off the back of Jamal Murray’s career high.

The combo guard dropped 48 points on 5/11 shooting from three in a very impressive win over one of the East’s elite teams. He also racked up five rebounds and four assists. Murray’s previous best for scoring was when he scored 38 against the Trail Blazers in January.

The Canadian is now in his third season in the NBA but is still remarkably just 21-years-old. His talent was evident going into the 2016 draft averaging 20ppg, 5.2rpb and 2.2 apg in his solitary season with the Kentucky Wildcats. Murray’s three-point percentage of 40.8% showed his skill as a sharpshooter, making him the perfect fit in the modern game at pro level.

He was tipped to go as high as third in the draft behind Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram but slipped to seventh. He was passed over in favour of Jaylen Brown, Dragan Bender (who has just had his fourth-year rookie option declined by the Suns), Kris Dunn and Buddy Hield.

Murray played as a shooting guard for Kentucky but his lack of height at 6’4 was perceived to be a little undersized for the position in the pros. Not a natural playmaker, the Canadian was more adept at shooting the ball than finding his teammates. He was drawing comparisons to the likes of Bradley Beal and Eric Gordon rather than James Harden or Kyle Lowry.

It was only fitting that Jamal showed just how much he improved in an isolation against Brown – the player who was drafted in the number three spot he was seemingly marked for. The Celtics winger has earned a reputation for his defence, but Murray took him off the dribble one-on-one. The 21-year-old drove left on the left wing and faked out Brown with a beautiful up-and-under move, he left the defender stranded in midair before taking a step inside and converting.

Murray contributed 19 of the Nuggets’ 27 points in the fourth quarter to help close out the game. He pulled up on a dime from outside the arc on three occasions out of pick-and-roll possessions and his ability to knock down shots made the Celtics eager to close him out.

The highlight of the game for him was when he completed a crossover on Marcus Smart, arguably the best guard defender in the league, sending him the wrong way. He drove to the rim and managed to finish over Brown acrobatically, with Smart frantically following him looking for the block.

Despite the Nuggets great start to the season, Murray hasn’t really got going from deep yet. He’s a career 36% shooter from three, but is only hitting at a 31% so far this campaign.

Regardless of his long-range marksmanship struggles, his improvement is undoubtable. He’s currently leading the team in scoring with 18.9ppg, up from 16.7ppg last year. Rebounds are also up: 3.7pg to 4.5pg. His assists are identical: averaging 3.4 per game both years.

Consistency has been key in Murray’s marked improvement this season. He has only failed to hit double digits in scoring twice so far, both coming against elite perimeter defenders. Klay Thompson and Patrick Beverly are lockdown on that side of the ball and thus far are the only players to contain Murray.

Murray may not be a great facilitator, but he plays with the league’s premier passing big man in Nikola Jokic. The duo’s pick-and-rolls are incredibly difficult to defend with both men able to shoot from anywhere on the court, Murray’s ability to penetrate and Jokic’s fantastic court vision on the short roll.

His back-court mate, Gary Harris, is another perfect partner for him. Harris has developed into an impressive defender and an ever-improving option on offence. The two-guard was widely derided after struggling in his early years in the league but has become a fantastic tertiary option alongside Jokic and Murray.

After missing out on the playoffs with a final day defeat in overtime to the Timberwolves in a battle for the eighth seed, the Nuggets have surged to a 9-1 record in a loaded Western conference. They have victories over the Celtics, Jazz and Warriors already and look good value to make the playoffs this year.

Paul Milsap’s return from injury issues last year has helped the team, especially on the defensive end. Last year the Nuggets were ranked 25th in defensive rating but have miraculously jumped to third to start this year.

Their one defeat has come against Lebron James and the Lakers. Denver and Los Angeles saw a rivalry sprout between them last season when Murray showboated at Lonzo Ball’s expense when the game was all but over.

It took a 28-point triple double from the greatest player in the league to resign the Nuggets to their only loss so far.

Jamal Murray will hope to continue his trajectory into a future All-Star by firing his side to having the home court in a playoff series, for the first time since Andre Iguodala’s cameo lead them to 57 wins in 2013.

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