Steph Curry indisputably accelerated a revolution during his first MVP campaign and title run with the Golden State Warriors in 2014-15. Since that season, defenses have adapted, lineups have shifted and coaches have given the green light to more and more 3-point shots. Because of this, it’s hard to compare Curry to any players that have come along since.
But that doesn’t mean direct imitators won’t materialize in his wake. In fact, there’s evidence that Jamal Murray — whose 40-point Game 7 capped Denver’s stunning 3-1 comeback against the L.A. Clippers — might be the closest thing we’ve seen. And even though his Nuggets are down 0-2 to the Los Angeles Lakers, his sudden mimicry of “the best shooter this league has ever seen” is the most important — and unexpected — reason they have gotten as far as they have.
Before stacking Murray’s current run against what Curry did in his 2015 postseason, here are a few caveats:
- Curry was 27 in 2015, and his initial scene-stealing postseason came two years prior, when he helped take down the Nuggets and then went face-to-face against the vaunted San Antonio Spurs. Murray is only 23.
- Curry never scored more than 40 points during those 21 playoff games, but he also never dropped fewer than 18. Murray has already reached 50 points on two separate occasions, but he has also scored fewer than 18 five times in 16 games.
- Curry’s production held through four playoff rounds, and his Warriors won the championship. Murray and his Nuggets are currently down 0-2 in the Western Conference finals.
- Curry had to travel and play in packed arenas. Murray does not have to travel and is in a bubble.
- And, most importantly, Curry had established himself as a superstar during the regular season, while Murray’s statistical production from his third to fourth year had plateaued — he’s never been an All-Star, let alone an MVP candidate or even the best player on his own team.
But all that said, there are several similarities between Murray and Curry worth acknowledging. To begin, let’s look at a few per-game stats for the two taken before the Western Conference finals began. They’re nearly identical.
They might be two of a kind
Postseason per-game stats for Stephen Curry and Jamal Murray
|Curry IN 2015||Murray in 2020*|
Adding in Murray’s first two games of the Western Conference finals changes things some, but not much. Their touches, time of possession and dribbles per touch are similar, too.
But to be a legitimate carbon copy of Curry, outside shooting must be on par. During his first title run, the three-time champion attempted 11 threes per game and sunk 42.2 percent. Curry’s quick release and off-ball gravity blew up preconceived notions about what was possible on the court. Over half his shots were behind the arc.
Murray isn’t quite up to that volume — nearly 40 percent of his shots have been from the midrange and only 36 percent are hoisted from downtown — but heading into the conference finals, he was still attempting 7.7 threes per game and hitting *checks notes* 49.1 percent of them. Overall, he’s made 15 more threes than any other player in these playoffs.
Zooming in for a second, what made Curry special in 2015 was how he could put on a dribbling clinic and then take an accurate shot. According to Second Spectrum, Curry attempted 71 threes after dribbling at least five times during the 2015 playoffs, and his effective field-goal percentage on these shots was 71.83. Meanwhile, Murray has jacked up 44 of these shots throughout the playoffs. All but one has been contested, and his effective field-goal percentage is 68.18.
According to Second Spectrum, Murray’s quantified Shooter Impact (the difference between quantified Shot Quality — which takes into account the type of shot, where it came from, how it was defended, etc. — and a player’s actual effective field-goal percentage) is about equal with Curry’s when these pull-up threes are contested. (When every field-goal attempt is considered, Murray’s qSI is nearly twice as high as Curry’s was, which suggests a drop in his accuracy soon enough. But so far, he’s producing more points per shot: 1.22 to 1.19.)
During the regular season, Murray made only 32.4 percent of the 3.0 pull-up threes he attempted per game, so it’s not quite fair to suddenly claim that he’s Curry (who scorched the Earth during his first MVP campaign by hitting 42.3 percent of his 4.5 pull-up threes). But Murray’s pedigree always suggested he had this in him. In college at Kentucky, he took 7.7 threes per game (the exact same number he averaged through the postseason’s first two rounds) and drilled 40.8 percent of them.
And last year, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr had this to say in a general conversation about the league’s most promising shooters: “Jamal Murray is on his way to becoming one of those guys. He shoots it, catch-and-shoot, or off the dribble, like Steph.”
By volume, Murray hasn’t been the same type of spot-up threat (only 11.8 percent of his shots are catch-and-shoot threes right now), but off the bounce he’s a Curry-esque geyser. Here’s one example from a late-clock pick and roll with Nikola Jokić in which Murray gets the Clippers’ Ivica Zubac on a switch, then dribbles back behind the 3-point line before firing up the stepback.
How Murray and Curry function as screeners is another intriguing point of comparison. Murray is setting 12.9 off-ball screens per 100 possessions this postseason compared to Curry’s 14.5 in 2015, according to Second Spectrum. The Nuggets average 1.24 points per possession on these plays, whereas the Warriors only generated 0.93.
Murray doesn’t make time-honored defensive principles look as antiquated as Curry did, but his flurry of pin-downs (particularly for Jokić), cross and back screens create their own brand of panic when sprung on a defense that isn’t locked in.
According to Second Spectrum, Murray is averaging 2.75 ball screens per 100 playoff possessions. Curry set only 0.55. And, as was the case when leveraged away from the action, Denver is far more efficient on these plays than Golden State was.
Another area worth considering is the pick and roll, where each one is a maestro. According to Second Spectrum, Murray shoots or passes as the ball-handler 32.8 times per playoff game; on those possessions, Denver’s offense yields 1.24 points. Curry averaged 31.8 pick and rolls per game that ended with him shooting or passing, and the Warriors also generated 1.24 points — another example of just how these two remarkable runs have mirrored each other. Whether the defense blitzes, drops or switches, Murray is forcing defenses to eat whatever dish he wants to cook — much like Curry did.
But there’s one major difference so far: When Murray sits, the Nuggets have been unable to function, scoring 18.2 fewer points per 100 possessions than the 114.8 they score with Murray. In 2015, the Warriors’ offense managed just 106.4 points per 100 possessions with Curry on the floor — and just 3.0 points fewer without him.
Murray has a long way to go before he gets to where Curry is, but the 16 playoff games we’ve seen thus far have served as pretty impressive stepping stones. Beyond the numbers, he brings jaw-dropping, throw-your-hands-up-in-frustration shots to the fore, and he makes opposing coaches grab the nearest fire extinguisher just like Curry does.
It’s unreasonable to expect Murray to sustain his past few weeks for the next eight or nine years — doing so would make him a first-ballot Hall of Famer — but after a regular season that was relatively stagnant, what it does is signal what he can someday be. The Nuggets need their franchise point guard to keep up what he’s been doing if they want to beat the Lakers four times in their next five games. But if anyone can make LeBron James flash back to previous Finals defeats suffered at the hands of Curry’s Warriors, it’s Murray.
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