Finally – finally! – it was time for The Blue Arrow.
Jamal Murray glided to the corner, put his hands up and Paul Millsap found him with a pinpoint pass. Murray, the Nuggets starting point guard, lined up the shot, released it quickly and the basketball found the bottom of the net.
It came with 2:56 left in the third quarter of the Nuggets’ 129-111 win over Toronto on Wednesday night. It was Murray’s third 3-pointer of the game and was part of his best shooting night of the season – 24 points total on 8-of-10 from the field including 3-of-5 from the arc. And, all at once, began to erase any shooting struggles with which he may have started this season.
At the same time, it began to usher in what is looking like a potent 1-2 punch for the Nuggets at point guard. Murray’s play of late, and Emmanuel Mudiay’s play since the start of this season off the bench is helping the Nuggets win nightly battles against starters and reserves and against some of the best point guard talent in the league.
“Those are two very confident guys, and you can see the confidence is growing each game,” guard Gary Harris said. “Especially Jamal. He’s been great for us these last few games. … Once he’s making shots he’s a helluva player. And the same with ‘E.’ He’s doing a great job running that second unit. And just the pace. The pace has been good from those two.”
Murray is growing nicely into his starting role, striking the right balance between being aggressive in looking for his offense while still running the team. In his last three games Murray is averaging 23.3 points and 3.0 assists. He’s shooting 60 percent from the field, 41.2 percent from the 3-point line and 93.3 percent from the free throw line.
It is all grabbing the eye of Nuggets coach Michael Malone, who spoke to Murray’s recent play after Wednesday night’s game.
“He’s just being aggressive,” Malone said. “I love the pace he’s playing at. Even in the second half he had a couple of those coast-to-coast drives, putting pressure on the defense. Defensively, he’s taking on the challenge of guarding a guy like Kyle Lowry; he’s not backing down. I just see his confidence growing in the last four or five games. He’s a different Jamal Murray than we saw early in the season.”
Defensively, Murray has been solid. His activity level is high, he’s not afraid to push up and pressure even the best offensive guards. And Murray has had a lot of success holding some of the top talent to subpar nights. Against the Raptors, he was part of a Nuggets defensive effort that held Toronto All-Star Kyle Lowry to just nine points on 4-of-10 shooting.
Murray did the same a few nights earlier in Brooklyn, where he spearheaded a Nuggets defensive effort that held Nets’ leading scorer, D’Angelo Russell, to just 12 points – nine under his average – on 3-of-12 shooting.
“When I’m not unhealthy I can move without any pain, so I enjoy just to move,” Murray said. “I move around just for fun. But I go in there a slide my feet and just be aggressive with the guard. Actually being able to actually hold my own feels a lot better this year.”
Meanwhile, the roots of Mudiay’s rise started in the summer. He slimmed down, put in countless hours of work on his jump shot, and has started the season hot from long range.
Mudiay has scored in double figures in four straight games, averaging 15.5 points in this stretch. The second quarter has been his quarter. He’s averaged a team-leading 7.8 points in the second quarters of those four games, shooting 57.9 percent from the field and 50 percent from the 3-point line.
Overall, Mudiay’s shooting 45.5 percent from the 3-point line, which to this point is a 14 percent improvement over last season.
“He’s been working on his shot, day-in and day-out,” Harris said. “I’ve seen him put that work in the gym. Just to see him hit those shots in the game (against Toronto) was huge.”
Said Malone: “(Mudiay is) a confident young player, who has put a lot of time into his game. He’s an improved shooter and he’s stepping into it with confidence. I think that makes all the difference in the world.”
And Mudiay’s play combined with Murray’s has given the Nuggets a boost. Malone cautions against getting expectations too high, but is satisfied with what he sees.
“The biggest challenge for us is when you have a 21-year old backup point guard and a 20-year old starting point guard, there are going to be inconsistencies,” Malone said. “So, can we try to help them and speed up their maturation as players because we have big plans. We want to be a playoff team.”
Christopher Dempsey: firstname.lastname@example.org and @chrisadempsey on Twitter.