There were times early in the season when Jamal Murray’s efforts to get Nikola Jokic the basketball ended in turnovers, shoulder shrugs and upturned palms. The connection between the Nuggets’ two most talented offensive players wasn’t clicking. When they’re at their best, the two-man game between them almost looks like a dance. They stepped on each other’s feet a lot in the early going.
Those missteps have since been ironed out. Saturday’s 122-118 win over the Phoenix Suns was the latest proof that Jokic and Murray have rediscovered their rhythm. Murray exploded for 46 points on 16-of-24 shooting while Jokic recorded another near triple-double with 23 points, eight rebounds and nine assists. Denver’s playmaking center and sharpshooting point guard propped each other up. Jokic assisted on five of Murray’s 16 made field goals; Murray assisted on four of Jokic’s eight.
“Everybody is moving the ball. Everybody is playing unselfish,” Murray said.
What’s made Denver’s offense so difficult to stop the last three years is that it’s an ever changing series of pick and rolls and dribble handoffs involving Jokic in the middle of the court. The Nuggets freelance around one of the best decision makers in basketball. If defenses worry too much about the threat of Jokic rolling to the rim, that creates space for a teammate to get a shot off. Murray, who’s sinking 43 percent of his midrange shots this season, knows exactly what to do in those situations.
Scoring comes naturally to Murray. Setting others up is a skill he’s still developing. Murray has sometimes struggled with the finer points of playing point guard since becoming Denver’s full-time starter at the position in 2017, but he did an excellent job in Phoenix. Making this drop-off pass to Jokic in the pick and roll is an essential part to a healthy Nuggets offense.
There’s an art to being a pick and roll ball handler. Subtle fakes and feigns, and understanding angles create passing lanes that otherwise wouldn’t exist. Nuggets backup point guard Monte Morris, the proud owner of a 5.72 assist-to-turnover ratio, is a master at this. Murray is starting to get it, too. Watch below: His hesitation move causes DeAndre Ayton to slide his way. Once Ayton commits, Murray slings a one-handed bounce pass to Jokic, who finger rolls it in.
Ayton, who scored 33 points on 16-of-20 shooting, had a fine game offensively. However, the Nuggets made him look silly on the defensive end when they forced him to guard in space.
“I think we’re great,” Murray said earlier this month of his connection with Jokic. “The best thing is we have a lot of fun doing it. In certain times on the court, we look at each other, and we just know we’re going to that. Sometimes it’s me coming off. Sometimes it’s him on the roll and him on the post up. We just kind of play with whatever’s open. We read and react. We don’t have a set shot we’re going to take. That’s what makes us hard to guard, especially when he has the ball and I’m setting it.”
The Nuggets are the rare team that whips out a 5-1 pick and roll. They fooled the Suns with it in the fourth quarter. Murray pretended to set a screen before slipping to the rim. Jokic threaded a bounce pass to him for an easy two.
As a little kid, Murray played quite a bit at the 5. Murray is a good rebounder for his size — he’s hauling in 4.6 boards per game — and is a willing screener. “I still kind of have that mentality,” he said.
Murray does more dirty work than he gets credit for, but at his core he’s a scorer. He had 15 in the fourth quarter alone. The Nuggets needed every bit of it. Their lead got slashed to three with less than two minutes to go. To stop the bleeding, Denver went to the Murray-Jokic pick and roll. Murray darted left, dragged two defenders his way and kicked to Jokic. Jokic took it from there.
Denver has leaned on Murray and Jokic to create for them during high-leverage situations a lot lately with Paul Millsap, Gary Harris and Will Barton sidelined. The point guard who grew up playing center and the center who grew up playing point guard are on the same page once again, and that’s great news for the Nuggets.