Jamal Murray On Championship Lessons And What Makes The Nuggets So Tough To Guard Late In Games

Jamal Murray and the Denver Nuggets will be the 2-seed in the Western Conference Playoffs, as they get set to try and defend their championship against some traditional West powers and a few up-and-coming threats.

After missing seven games with a knee injury late in the year, Murray returned to Denver’s lineup for their final five games, quickly picking up where he left off and looking like his normal self as the playoffs arrive. Murray has proven to be a reliable playoff performer, and when he’s been healthy for a Nuggets playoff run alongside Nikola Jokic, they’ve tended to be a threat. That’s largely because those two create an immense headache for opponents and have the best guard-big man chemistry in the NBA, working off of each other in the pick-and-roll/dribble-handoff game better than just about anyone in recent memory.

Ahead of the playoffs, we got a chance to speak with Murray as he promoted his new ad campaign with Cheetos over Zoom after the Nuggets arrived in San Antonio following their thrilling win over the Timberwolves in a battle of top seeds that served as a nice dress rehearsal for the postseason. We talked about the growth of some of Denver’s youngsters they’ll lean on for playoff minutes, what they learned from their title run, the difference in playoff preparation to a regular season game, what makes Denver’s late-game offense work so well when other teams tend to bog down, and what he’s learned about being in control of the game’s pace in crunch time.

How are you feeling back from injury these last few games, and just how’s everything feeling as you get ready for this playoff run?

Feel really good, man. Obviously big win last night. Everybody is in rhythm and in sync. So we’re just trying to be healthy and just some minor tune ups for what’s coming.

I’m gonna start with the new Cheetos campaign you’ve got here, and it seemed like you had some fun with this one. How did this partnership come about and how much fun was it shooting this this other hand ad with them?

We thought it’d be a lot of fun, man. You know, using the other hand, obviously a lot of different instances — high fives, eating, playing video games, tying shoes — we thought it’d be fun to use the other hand and not the dominant hand. So we got some good content coming out, a nice commercial hopefully next week. But, yeah, it’s just supposed to be just fun, light, and who doesn’t love Cheetos, you know what I’m saying? I got a big box of Cheetos back home.

You mentioned the [Timberwolves] game, and something that I thought was particularly important was Peyton Watson and Christian Braun playing big minutes and playing kind of key roles down the stretch. Christian was in the rotation last year, but he was in a little bit of a different role, and then Peyton this year getting into a bigger role. How big is it to have guys like that contribute in that way going into the playoffs and get that experience and confidence up because you’re going to need their contributions?

Yeah, for sure. Like you just said, getting the confidence up and getting used to the type of pressures that we’re relying on them to have or that they will see from the other team is gonna be huge. So, you know, I think they’ve done a great job of just embracing the role. As a young guy, you want to come in and you want to do everything that you dreamt of doing in the NBA. And I think they’ve done a great job of just learning and trying to grow game by game and not getting frustrated with the process. And CB sits right next to me in the locker room, so I tell him, if he’s not shooting enough or not shooting well, I tell him he’s got to get used to missing like three, four shots in a row, just so that later in the game as you get another one or next two, you’re ready to shoot those and there’s no hesitation. So I think he’s been just trying to learn and grasp as much information as possible because he cares about the game, he cares about winning, and it’s just nice to see not just him but P-Wat as well just embrace all the learning and growth that comes with the game.

It seems like that’s been the culture in Denver. How have you established that? And how has the organization as a whole been able to bring in guys that seem to be able to really buy into this? Because it’s not easy, like you said, to be a young guy and buy in to that team aspect in the way almost everybody that’s come into this franchise over the last few years has been able to do.

I think that the main thing is that we’re a contender. We’re a team that’s trying to win and we’re not waiting around for anything, you know what I’m saying? Guys got to catch up and fit in where they fit in. So we’re just trying to give them confidence and the leeway to make mistakes and grow from it and all that. But I think they’ve just gone about it the right way in terms of like, you know, they might get nine minutes one game and then they played 40 minutes the next. That’s just the territory comes with being a rookie, and they just did a great job of handling those highs and lows individually. And knowing that there’s a greater picture in mind and that we’re going to need in the playoffs. And it’s a different beast in the playoffs. I think everybody’s excited and we know what we’re capable of and everybody’s willing to sacrifice for the win.

A championship run last year — what are the things that you think you can really take away from that as a team and lessons that you learned about navigating through the four rounds of the playoffs and keeping that consistency you need to win a title?

You’re answering your own questions here, man [laughs]. I think that [consistency] is the biggest thing. Like, you got to build good habits. Every possession matters, you know, but at the same time, you got to be confident to risk and make a nice pass or tough thread the needle pass or whatever it is. You got to clamp down on defense for a couple possessions even if that might not be your forte. I think everybody understands now what it’s going to come to. You face the same team at least four times, it could be seven times in a row, so you have a pretty good idea what’s coming and when a team finds something that’s working, they normally go back to it. So, we’ve just done a great job of just countering their counters and playing free and still trying to play the way that we play, knowing that every team demands a different type of challenge. So I think we’re just prepared for whatever challenges is thrown our way right now.

How different is the preparation in the playoffs? Because like you said, in the regular season you’re going you know city to city — you just flew into San Antonio today — and you’re bouncing around. But when you know you’re facing this team four to seven times, how different is the level of preparation and the level of detail that goes into the game planning?

It’s major, man. I think that’s the toughest part about the playoffs. It’s not like you just play one game and it’s over with. Like you’re playing them over and over and it’s the same actions you get. You’re memorizing their plays. You’re memorizing what this guy likes to do, which way he likes to go, which way he likes to finish. So it’s just a lot of intent, a lot of detail, and all that matters. That could be the difference between a guy getting separation and making a shot or him getting blitzed and not being able to pass the ball. I think everybody just being on the same page is super key and that can cover a lot of mistakes. You know, guys are gonna make tough shots, guys are gonna go on scoring runs and do what they do. That’s why we’re in the playoffs. But I think the moment can be detailed with what we do and build good habits, and I think, especially us, that makes us tough to guard and stop.

I think the thing that’s been the separator for you guys the last couple years has been late game execution. You seem to be able to get create good shots when you need them in the fourth quarter, when the other team is putting forth that maximum effort. What is it that allows you guys to do that and what has gone into building an offense that is able to thrive in those moments?

I just think the poise. You know, Jok and I, we know how to get everybody organized and we both can score one-on-one. We don’t need to go into a pick-and-roll to score, but just us being in an action together brings a lot of help. And if you don’t bring help, then even better, you know what I’m saying? Yeah, I just think that it’s tough to guard us in the pick-and-roll two-on-two without bringing that third defender and then you have the greatest passing big man ever making passes four-on-three. It’s just tough. And to do that over and over and over again, it definitely causes defenses to scramble and we just keep them on the toes. And then, you know, you could play great defense and then I’ll hit a step back or Mike will hit a tough shot. We know what we can get to and we know if he trust our offense and play free and free flowing like we’ll find what we need.

What have you learned about pacing, especially in those moments? Because it seems like some teams get too caught up in playing the clock game but you guys do a really good job of working the clock but still making sure you have time to run whatever action you want to run. What’s the process been for you as a point guard of learning that little balance and the give and take required to say hey, I want to work some clock but also we’ve got to get a good shot still?

I mean, I think this is all situational. So it’s tough for me to answer in one … you know what I’m saying? It’s more of a general. But, I think it doesn’t take long for — what I’m looking at as a whole, and when I have the ball, I can score off one dribble and create enough separation that it’s a good enough shot. Where it’s a shot I’ve practiced over and over. It’s still a shot the defense doesn’t want to give up. I think the same thing for Jok. He can catch the ball, he can just turn around on one foot and throw it up over two guys and it can go in, or a one-hand or he can float or he can get doubled and throw a lob to AG. Like, I think the quick thinking and the IQ of the team is just very, very high. And it’s, like I said, we play the game within the game as a unit.