Nobody knows the stress Jamal Murray’s gone through quite like Klay Thompson.
He knows the mental weight of being isolated, the physical toll of the rehab itself, and the awful perspective of having to watch, helplessly, as your team struggles without you.
“It’s the worst feeling as a competitor,” Thompson told The Post in the middle of Denver’s first-round series against Golden State. “It’s really the worst.”
“That’s such an unfortunate feeling,” Thompson continued. “I would just tell Jamal to keep in mind the big picture. He’s got a decade of greatness ahead of him. No need to compromise that now.”
Less than hour after the Nuggets were routed in Game 2 of their first-round series against the Warriors, Murray tweeted: “Y’all don’t think I want to be out there huh … crazy.”
As fiery a competitor as anyone on the Nuggets, something compelled Murray to defend himself. Perhaps he heard reports about his status, or maybe speculation on social media got to him. It could’ve just been the raw emotion of watching — and being unable to contribute — as his team got picked apart in San Francisco.
Murray’s message was unambiguous: I want to be out there. I just can’t.
In an extended interview with The Post prior to Thursday’s Game 3, Thompson forcefully defended Murray’s decision not to return barely a year after his own ACL tear and denounced anyone urging him otherwise.
“It’s just unfair to him, man,” said Thompson when told of Murray’s message. “What is it, less than a year? And you’re thrown into a playoff series? You can’t simulate that. It was hard enough to simulate a regular-season game. I couldn’t even imagine not playing basketball for a year and then thrown into a situation where you’re down (in the playoffs).
“It’s just, I feel for him, man,” he continued. “Fans are kind of unrealistic. They don’t realize how much it takes to build back your muscle to be able to compete at this level. This is the best basketball in the world. You don’t want to put your whole future at risk just because of win right now. He’s only, what, 25? What are we doing here?”
Thompson was there the night Murray’s left knee buckled. Not only was he in the building, but he was in the visitor’s locker room at Chase Center, consoling and encouraging Murray in his darkest moments. He, along with fellow All-Stars Victor Oladipo and Zach LaVine, helped coach Murray back throughout this past season. In the middle of his own rehab last April, Thompson had all the time in the world to let his mind wander.
“I feel for the guy,” Thompson said. “I know what it’s like seeing all that stuff online. It can be just mentally draining.”
The Nuggets never officially ruled Murray out, frankly, because in the month leading up to the playoffs, they didn’t know whether a return was imminent. Like any rehab, Murray had good days and bad days. There were moments when he looked like his old self in pick-up games and other times when his body wasn’t in a place where he felt comfortable competing at the highest level.
“We’re never going to take any short-term view with any of our players, and any decision on Jamal’s return will be made collectively,” Nuggets president Tim Connelly told The Post on Friday. “Jamal’s among the toughest and most competitive guys in our league and is eager to play, but organizationally, we can’t be irresponsible with his return. His best days are undoubtedly ahead of him.”
Sitting along the baseline at Ball Arena as the Warriors conducted shootaround on Thursday, Thompson’s mind reverted to his own ACL recovery. He remembered the seven grueling months of squat racks and leg presses that became part of his routine. And once the muscle from his torn ACL strengthened, there were the months of conditioning that followed. Thompson’s story is unique in that his absence from the court was extended due to an Achilles’ tear, but he has the same empathy and compassion for Murray, nonetheless.
And knowing how ingrained Murray is to the Nuggets’ offense, Thompson couldn’t contemplate an imminent return.
“He’s not in a position where he can just coast,” Thompson said. “He has the ball in his hands all the time. He runs the offense. He comes off screens, he’s flying around. That takes months. That takes a long time, and especially for playoff basketball. That’s just a big task for somebody. To look at him differently because he’s not back yet is just unfair.”
Even though Murray ramped up the physicality of his pre-game workouts and pick-up games in recent weeks, all of that was in an effort to test himself and his body. Thompson said there’s no replicating the intensity of an NBA game, let alone playoff basketball.
“The NBA is hard, man,” he said. “To come back in a playoff game, play 35 minutes and you haven’t played a year? It took me three, four months to get here, to get into this condition. I don’t care how much pick-up he plays. You can’t simulate the crowd, you can’t simulate the stressors that come with being on television and that performance aspect where you’re expected to be this great already.”