Jamal Murray is on fire.
The Denver Nuggets guard has 204 total points in six games, after putting up 50, 42, and 50 points in Games 4, 5 and 6, respectively. He’s shooting 58% from 3-point range and 57% from deep — and those numbers take into account relatively lackluster performances in Games 2 and 3. Oh, and he’s hit shots at the most important moments, killing the Jazz’s hopes of winning in three separate games.
But Murray’s brilliant performance has also needed a full team of individual defensive failures from Utah’s end. Royce O’Neale, a man given a four-year extension for his defensive prowess on the ball, has shrunk from the moment. Joe Ingles, who once slowed All-NBA wing Paul George to the point of embarrassment, hasn’t had a prayer of staying with the shifty Murray. Donovan Mitchell can’t stay within touching distance, and Mike Conley is so small the Jazz haven’t even tried him, even though both are nominally the point guards for their teams.
The situation got so dire that Jordan Clarkson got the Murray assignment down the stretch of Game 6. Clarkson’s defensive reputation is such that former Grizzlies assistant GM John Hollinger wrote, “In general, if the answer to any defensive problem is ’Jordan Clarkson,’ you’ve either asked the wrong question or lack the sufficient answer.”
The truth is that the Jazz might just lack the sufficient answer. It’s clear that perimeter defense wasn’t a key concern when the roster was developed beyond O’Neale. If he’s not on his defensive game, perhaps the only solution is to start asking different questions of the Nuggets.
That means some combination of hard denial defense, pick-and-roll trapping, or perhaps just straight double teams from all over the court. If one player can’t stop Murray, perhaps two can.
“I think we could just be more, more physical, more present. Keep more bodies on him and try to get the ball out of his hands as much as possible,” Conley said.
Even as the Jazz have brought help, they’ve done it slowly and poorly. With Clarkson on the ball, for example, the plan was to have O’Neale come up and double Murray at the point of attack. Even then, though, a missed communication meant a free drive to the rim for the Nuggets guard.
“There were times in the game when we did try to trap him or hit him, get the ball out of his hands, but he’s playing terrific basketball,” Snyder said. “We’ve got to do a better job on him.”
And if the Jazz have defended it well, Murray has consistently made the right play, and role players like Jerami Grant and Torrey Craig are knocking down open shots. A double-team necessarily means a 4-on-3 elsewhere on the court, and the Nuggets have taken advantage of those situations in the past two games.
In the end, any plan to stop Murray — with either one or two players — is probably dead on arrival if the defensive execution by the players involved doesn’t improve. Without raising their level, Murray will roll over them again in Game 7, and the Jazz will likely go home. So far, they haven’t been able to do that.
There is one thing about Murray the Jazz have figured out, though.
“Well, we’ve figured out he’s pretty good,” Ingles quipped.