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Why the Nuggets aren't panicking after losing Jamal Murray to injury

Harrison Wind Avatar
January 16, 2020

First, Michael Malone delivered the good news on Nuggets starting point guard Jamal Murray who exited Wednesday’s win over the Charlotte Hornets in the second quarter with a left ankle injury. X-rays on Murray’s ankle were negative.

Then, Denver’s coach gave the bad.

“I just looked at it. It’s rather large — kinda scary,” Malone said of Murray’s ankle following the Nuggets’100-86 win. “He rolled it and those are scary because those kind of injuries, besides being painful, you don’t want to have Jamal Murray miss an extended period of time. Hopefully it’s not as bad as it looks and we can get him back.”

The Nuggets as of Wednesday night don’t know just how much time Murray, who has a history of ankle injuries, will miss, but there was a consensus within Denver’s locker room that he may have avoided a serious injury. Will Barton said Murray was in good spirits following the Nuggets’ 28th victory of the season and that he doesn’t expect him to be sidelined for too long.

“It’s nothing serious,” Barton told DNVR. “He’ll be fine.”

Regardless, the Nuggets will feel Murray’s absence immediately and he won’t play Thursday in Golden State on the second leg of Denver’s back-to-back. Gone are the 17.9 points that Murray averages per contest — the second-most on the Nuggets this season — and the 4.7 assists he hands out per game. The Nuggets abruptly lose his leadership and voice too, aspects of the 22-year-old’s makeup which have grown this season. But there was a sense of calmness within the Nuggets’ locker room that teams who lose their second-leading scorer for an unidentified amount of time aren’t supposed to have.

The Nuggets can survive Murray’s absence because of their depth. Monte Morris started the third quarter Wednesday for Murray and will assume Denver’s starting point guard duties on a full-time basis until Murray returns. Morris has stepped into the Nuggets’ first five before, and Denver’s roster is confident he’ll be able to shoulder the full-time role for now.

“I’ve played with Monte a lot and Monte has been with us in crucial moments,” said Nikola Jokic who finished with 12 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in the win. “We have a lot of trust in Monte.”

Morris has played his best basketball over the last few weeks too, giving the Nuggets even more confidence that he’ll be able to fill in for Murray. Over Morris’ last 10 games he’s averaging nine points on 51.3% shooting from the field and 42.9% from three-point range, and 3.5 assists per game. Morris leads the league in assist-to-turnover ratio and has turned the ball over just three times in his last 235 minutes.

He’ll also offer a different dynamic than the high-scoring Murray alongside Denver’s starting five.

“Monte’s a true point guard,” Barton said. “He plays with great pace. He’s going to get guys the ball where they need to be. He’s just smart and doesn’t really make mistakes.”

With Murray watching from the locker room, the Hornets were able to cut into Denver’s 15-point halftime lead and trim the Nuggets’ advantage to five points late in the third quarter. But Denver responded and pieced together a 19-3 run over the first half of the fourth sparked by PJ Dozier who got his first minutes of the season due to Murray’s injury.

Dozier, a 6-foot-6 point guard who boasts a 6-foot-10 wingspan and strong pick-and-roll instincts, scored seven-straight points for the Nuggets to open the fourth and finished with 12 points (5-7 FG’s, 2-4 3FG’s) and four assists in 13 minutes. He has bounced to and from the G League’s Windy City Bulls this season where the 23-year-old has put up eye-opening numbers —  21.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 7.6 assists per game — but gained a lot of believers within the organization after a strong showing at training camp last fall. That confidence seems warranted after Wednesday’s performance.

“He’s got a great feel and has a great pace,” Barton said. “He’s really good at making that pocket pass. He’s a big guard and he can see over top. We knew he could play like that so it was no surprise to us what he did.”

“He’s a part of the future. I talk to him all the time telling him to keep his head up and his time will come. He’s an NBA talent for sure. Definitely a rotation guy in the NBA at worst.”

Dozier got a crash course in the Nuggets’ playbook over the last 24 hours but admitted following Denver’s win that he still doesn’t have a great grasp on the offense. So he played off of his instincts Wednesday and since Dozier is most comfortable in the two-man game, the Nuggets put him in pick-and-roll actions often during his Denver debut.

“He’s an exceptional pick and roll player,” Malone said. “If you put PJ Dozier in a pick-and-roll something good is going to happen, and we all saw that tonight.”

The Nuggets have more options at point guard too. Barton filled in at backup point guard during the second-half of the 2017-18 season and had Denver’s second unit playing at a high level. Jokic, the Nuggets’ point center, has initiated Denver’s offense from the top of the three-point arc on a regular basis over the last four seasons. Morris figures to be in line for the biggest increase in playing time and role immediately.

“You have a lot of guys that can carry the load with Jamal out,” Malone said. “I trust Monte Morris 1000%.”

The Nuggets will miss Murray’s individual shot-making, but Michael Porter Jr. showed Thursday that he can take on some of that responsibility. Porter tallied a team-high 19 points versus Charlotte, 11 of which came on a second-quarter scoring run from the rookie where he scored four-straight baskets.

Porter shot a clean 7 of 13 from the field and knocked in two of his five attempts from three-point range to go with eight rebounds. He scored from everywhere — from distance and around the rim — and the rookie’s confidence and role is growing more and more with every minute he spends on the floor.

“The kid is so damn talented. Really just give him the ball over half-court and he can create his own shot,” Malone said. “But you can post him up you can put him in pick-and-roll and what was impressive tonight was his ability to drive the defense, get to the rim and finish, and that was great to see.”

The Nuggets will rely on their depth to keep them afloat if Murray misses an extended period of time. Denver has an open roster spot that it could use to sign a reserve point guard, but with how Dozier looked in his first action of the season the Nuggets should be able to survive by leaning on their bench.

In the immediate aftermath of Murray’s injury, the Nuggets gave off a brash confidence. They believe in their bench, as they should. Denver’s depth is one of its biggest strengths.

“I stepped into the role last year when Jamal went down so it’s nothing new,” Morris said. “I’m ready to come in, do what I’ve got to do, and put up numbers.”

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