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Canada's Jamal Murray turning heads in bubble on and off the court

In a perfect world, Nick Nurse would have just coached Jamal Murray and Canada's men's basketball team at the Tokyo Olympics.

In a perfect world, Nick Nurse would have just coached Jamal Murray and Canada's men's basketball team at the Tokyo Olympics.

Instead, COVID-19 threw a wrench into sports schedules around the world, and so Nurse is watching the young Canadian guard thoroughly dominate games for the Denver Nuggets in the delayed playoffs in the NBA bubble.

"He's really on one, man. He's really on a huge tear," the Raptors coach said Monday. "More than the scoring and everything I just love the competitiveness. I think from watching him play, man, he's really trying to do everything he can to help his team win, and he just so happens to be on a scoring barrage unlike . . . I don't see too many like this.

"So, pretty cool to watch. Heck of a player, man. Heck of a competitor."

The 23-year-old from Kitchener, Ont., extended his torrid run with 50 more points and the Nuggets forced a Game 7 with a 119-107 win over Utah on Sunday night.  

It was his second 50-point game of the series, putting him in lofty company. Michael Jordan (twice), Wilt Chamberlain and Allen Iverson are the only other players with two 50-point games in the same post-season.

He followed up the tremendous game with an emotional post-game interview when he spoke about racial injustice and the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of police. He had the faces of Taylor and Floyd, who are both Black, plus raised fists, on each of his custom-made Adidas shoes.

"These shoes mean a lot," he said, fighting back tears. "These shoes mean a lot. We found something we're fighting for as the NBA, as a collective unit . . . and I use these shoes as a symbol to keep fighting all around the world."

As Murray headed off the court, he paused to crouch down, overcome with emotion. He finally got up, wiping his face with his jersey.

"It's not going to take one night. We've been trying to fight for 400 years," Murray said. "But these shoes give me life. Even though these people are gone. They give me life. They help me find strength to keep fighting in this world."

The six-foot-four guard was one of the first Canadians to commit this past winter to playing for Canada at the FIBA Olympic qualifying tournament in June in Victoria. The Canadians would have had to win the tournament to book a ticket to Tokyo, but with the likes of Murray, along with other NBA stars such as RJ Barrett and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, they stood a great chance.

The Tokyo Olympics were postponed a year due to the coronavirus, and Victoria will get a chance to host the qualifier if indeed the Games happen next summer. There's been suggestions that they won't unless there's a vaccine for COVID-19.

Has Nurse allowed to himself to think of what could've been this summer in Tokyo?

"What I think about is this: I pray every day that there'll be a Tokyo someday," he said. "For everybody around the world, (the ability to have the Olympics) means that things are moving again. And it's hard to dream about being on the medal podium when you don't know if you're going to ever go, right?

"Let's all keep trying to pray or (think) positive thoughts that those games will take place at some point."

Canada's men's team hasn't played on the Olympic stage since the 2000 Sydney Games. The women's team has already locked up its spot for Tokyo.

In the NBA bubble, meanwhile, Murray continues to make headlines both on the court of off. He played all but two minutes of the second half Sunday, hitting seven of his eight shots, and all five of his three-point attempts, to score 21 points in the fourth quarter. After Utah got within seven points midway through the fourth, Murray went on a personal 12-0 run to put the game out of reach.

Sandwiched between his two 50-point games, Murray had a 42-point night.

Off the court, a major theme of the NBA's restart was to amplify messages about racial and social injustice, and Murray has been among the most vocal.

"It's an emotional thing because it's not just me. ... it's lives," Murray told reporters. "Imagine losing your life. I don't know what else to say. Imagine a father losing their life while they have kids. Imagine a father, a son, a brother getting shot seven times in front of their kids. Imagine that."  

Chris Paul, president of the players association, tweeted about Murray, posting: "Powerful!!" with a Black fist.  

Murray and his teammates are trying to become the 12th team to rally from a 3-1 deficit to win a series and the first since 2016, when the Cleveland Cavaliers rallied to win the NBA Finals.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 31, 2020.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press