LOS ANGELES — In one corner of the NBA’s most decorated arena, a bounce pass away from the epicenter of a moment that will be relived for generations, Roger Murray was at peace.
He had the best view in the house, where he could recognize and appreciate everything that was converging during a four-second basketball play.
“This is part of his dream. Part of his dream was to play the greatest players,” Jamal Murray’s father said an hour later in that same corner, eyes drifting over the spot where Jamal’s help defense against the NBA’s all-time leading scorer clinched the Nuggets’ first-ever trip to the NBA Finals.
“Get to the Finals. It’s part of his dream. This is basically, in this moment — it all came together, from the injury, all the training. It makes perfect sense.”
It made perfect sense that Murray had the opportunity to slide to his right and double-team a driving LeBron James, who already had 40 points in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals. It made sense that the Nuggets, a team ridiculed for their defense, needed to grasp for a stop in order to sweep a playoff series for the first time in franchise history. It made perfect sense that Roger was at the same end of the floor where the Lakers were inbounding, seated right behind Denver’s bench.
The only way for it to make perfect sense was for Roger to be calm because calm is what he has taught his son to channel for years.
So Roger stayed calm as LeBron powered toward the rim from the left elbow.
“I don’t get worried like that, man,” he said, smiling. “It’s basketball. Just give yourself the best opportunity within your abilities.”
That message has long been a core tenet of Roger’s lessons in meditation, which Jamal still takes to heart. The 26-year-old Murray attributed his 23-point turnaround fourth quarter in Game 2 of this series to halftime meditation. “We still do it,” Roger said. “Just today, we (did it). Every time we play, we do it.”
When Jamal tore his ACL in April 2021, it became difficult to tap into that method of motivation. Roger remembers conversations with Jamal, emphasizing that Jamal needed to focus only on his health. Not on basketball. “Shut this down,” he said. Jamal wasn’t wired to separate himself from the sport for such a long time.
“It’s hard in the sense that this is something that’s a part of him from birth,” Roger said. “So it’s something he has to always be thinking of, to improve.”
Through those obstacles, the Nuggets’ point guard emerged to be positioned for a historic, gutsy play on a Monday night in Los Angeles. In Game 1, the Lakers had hunted Murray, switching him onto LeBron and isolating that matchup whenever possible. James shot 5 for 5 when he drove against Murray in that game.
Murray’s defense improved as the series progressed. Ninety minutes before Game 4, coach Michael Malone lauded Murray for pursuing excellence as a defender and not merely settling for eminence as a scorer. Murray had started the series with 30 or more points in three consecutive games for just the second time this season, but Malone’s pregame observation turned out to be prescient on a night when Murray amassed “only” 25 points.
Four seconds remained. The Lakers trailed 113-111. Everybody knew where the ball was going on the inbound.
“They were bringing LeBron to the ball so he could get down to his left hand,” said Aaron Gordon, who was guarding James.
“I was guarding Rui (Hachimura),” Murray said. “He set a screen for ‘Bron.”
Just like Game 1. But in the huddle, it had been decided: “We knew we didn’t want to switch,” Nikola Jokic said. Gordon went over the pin-down screen from Hachimura. Murray stayed low at the foul line but turned his attention to James, knowing the King was a task worth two defenders. He double-teamed the ball. “We knew, like, as soon as Jamal goes, I was kind of inching in for Rui,” Jokic said.
Anthony Davis made a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to beat the Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals three years ago. Even with that memory, Jokic felt OK leaving Davis wide open on the opposite perimeter this time, because with James driving left, the double-team would make it nearly impossible for James to direct a pass behind him to his right.
LeBron drove toward the basket and Murray wrapped his hands around the ball like a city’s life depended on it.
“I put two hands on it and didn’t let him get off a good shot,” he said.
Gordon tipped what little mustard James did manage to get into his layup attempt.
If Murray was benefitting from meditation as time ran out, Jokic achieved some form of Zen from the synergy with which the final play unfolded.
“We were so connected. Everybody,” Jokic said. “… Everything was so connected. It was great.”
And it made for the consummate celebration — Nuggets spilling off the bench right next to the play to mob Murray and Jokic.
Roger Murray watched from behind the bench, a son’s dream realized, even if another isn’t complete yet. It made perfect sense.
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