This was supposed to be a cheerful homecoming for Jamal Murray. He was back playing in Toronto, located an hour east of his hometown of Kitchener, for the first time since 2018. He had around 40 friends and family in attendance at Scotiabank Arena. Even on a left knee that prevented him from finishing Sunday’s loss at home to the Nets, Murray was going to suit up.
“There’s no way in hell he wasn’t playing tonight,” Michael Malone said pregame. “Even if he’s on one leg.”
But both Murray and the Nuggets faltered against the Raptors. Murray tallied 14 points on 5-18 shooting in a game-high 40 minutes. Nobody else on the Nuggets played above 35. He handed out nine assists but turned the ball over five times. Murray staggering with the Nuggets’ second unit when Jokic was off the floor again didn’t work. He finished a team-worst -20.
It was the Nuggets’ fourth-straight loss and Murray’s fourth-straight underwhelming outing. He’s averaging 16.3 points on 31.5% shooting from the floor and 25.7% from 3 in this current four-game slide. During the losing streak, the Nuggets have reverted to the same dispiriting defense that they played to start the season. No surprise, but Denver is the NBA’s worst defense across these last four games.
The Nuggets getting their defense back on track before the playoffs is imperative. Getting Murray back is a must. Because with this version of Murray, the Nuggets aren’t doing anything in the postseason. They may lose in Round 1. Murray is that important to this team and their ceiling.
He didn’t look right against Toronto. Murray didn’t have his regular juice. He wasn’t spry or quick. He didn’t have his lift or shake. Five of Murray’s eight of what I’d classify as regular perimeter jumpers were short. It looked like his knee was ailing him.
Murray needs rest. We’ll see if he gets any of it on this road trip and at a time when Denver desperately needs a win to get its vibes right.
Here’s what else stood out from the loss to the Raptors…
Let Michael Porter Jr. cook
Porter is all of a sudden the Nuggets’ second-most reliable player. That’s the word I’d use to describe him right now. Reliable. Porter went for 23 points in Toronto on 8-13 shooting and hit 5-of-9 3s. Again, he was fine defensively. He had ugly moments, but so did everyone. Fred VanVleet, who went for 36 points, went at Porter occasionally but zero of VanVleet’s 19 field goals were scored with Porter as his primary defender.
It’s remarkable how locked in Porter’s offensive game is right now. It certainly feels like he needs more minutes and more looks. The Nuggets need to let him cook. Porter is one of three players in the NBA that’s averaging at least 17 points in under 30 minutes per game this season. The other two are Myles Turner and Christian Wood. Porter also averages the second-fewest minutes of the 75 players who are scoring at least 17 points per game. He only plays fewer minutes than Wood, who comes off the bench for Dallas.
I’d like to see him staggered at times with the second unit. It seems like the one big move that’s still out there for the bench that the Nuggets haven’t tried. The inclusion of Christian Braun into the rotation in Toronto, which was the right adjustment from Malone, paid off. Braun played well and gave Denver’s second unit a jolt
Can adversity be a silver lining?
Nuggets veterans spoke up in the locker room after the loss. One of those players who talked was Ish Smith, whose message was that the Nuggets have too many guys that are reliant on their offense to get them going.
Jamal Murray said that he liked that certain veterans let their concerns be heard.
“Waking us up a little bit. Talking to us. Not everything’s going to be sweet,” Murray said. “It’s nice to be shooken up and roughened up a little bit, and being told what you need to be told, and do your best to correct it for the next game and games to come.”
This is the first time the Nuggets have hit adversity in months. Prior to the four-game slide, Denver hadn’t lost back-to-back games since January. The Nuggets have only had one three-game losing streak this entire season.
Denver hasn’t been the same since the Memphis win two weeks ago. It felt like the Nuggets figuratively locked up the No. 1 seed with that victory (a notion that seems a little more sketchy now) and got a physical, defensive-first victory over the full-strength Grizzles, who at that point had been the second-best team in the West for most of the season. And then took their foot off the gas. It looks like they’ve been mentally checked out of the regular season since.
This can be a wake-up call at a time when the Nuggets need one.
“I think this is a tremendous opportunity for us,” Malone said. “I love the fact we’re facing adversity because I’m going to find out a lot about the guys in that locker room. I’m here. I’m going to be here today, tomorrow, the day after. I ain’t going anywhere. and I’m going to find some guys that are ready to fight with me. Because right now we’re just in chill mode. and you can’t be in chill mode with 13 games to go in the season. We’ve got to try to find a way to get our swagger back and playing Denver Nugget basketball.”