Jamal Murray is the Nuggets’ barometer. Here’s how Timberwolves plan to slow him down

Nikola Jokic gets 90 percent of the headlines when it comes to the Denver Nuggets, and rightfully so. The soon-to-be, three-time NBA MVP is currently the best player in basketball.

Everything Denver does runs through him.

The Nuggets know what they’ll get from him on a nightly basis — excellence. Timberwolves assistant coach Micah Nori noted the easiest thing about preparing for Jokic is you know exactly what play he’ll make in any situation — the right play.

But Jokic is not the barometer for Denver’s success — if he was, the Nuggets would’ve finished roughly 78-4 this season.

No, the player who best determines the Nuggets’ nightly result is their point guard, Jamal Murray. Nori knows that, and he’s got the stats at the ready to prove it. Murray averages 22.5 points on 51 percent shooting, including 46 percent from 3-point territory, in Denver victories.

In Nuggets’ losses, those numbers dip to 17.5 points on 41 percent shooting, including 31 percent shooting from deep.

“When Murray goes well, they go well, for the most part,” Wolves guard Mike Conley said. “We’re going to try to limit that as much as we can.”

That’s no easy feat. Just ask Anthony Edwards, who’s previously said Murray is his favorite player in the NBA to watch.

“He just can get hot. He sees one go in, he might make six, seven in a row,” Edwards recently told the Denver Post. “I’m one of the guys that loves watching him play.”

Edwards noted Murray averaged 30 points a game in last year’s Western Conference finals — a sweep of the Lakers — en route to Denver’s NBA title.

“If you can find me somebody that don’t think Jamal Murray is one of the best (freaking) guards in the league, then they’re crazy. … He’s the reason they won (the title). I mean, without him, they’re not good. It’s just that simple,” Edwards told the Denver Post. “Without (Murray), they’re not a championship team.”

The same is true for Denver when Murray isn’t contributing at a high level, particularly against Minnesota.

Over the last two seasons, the Nuggets are 1-2 against the Timberwolves when Murray isn’t in the lineup. When Murray is in action, but doesn’t shoot better than 50 percent from the floor or have at least eight assists, Denver is 0-3 against Minnesota.

When he achieves any other of those statistical feats, the Nuggets are 7-0 against the Wolves.

“He’s a great player, he’s going to make his plays,” Conley said. “But we have a lot of guys we can throw at him, a lot of different schemes we’re going to try to throw at him in hopes that it slows him down a little bit.”

Last year, Nickeil Alexander-Walker was somewhat on an island against Murray, his Team Canada teammate, after Jaden McDaniels ended his own season by punching a wall in the final game of the regular season. But now Minnesota has its full complement of perimeter defensive weapons, from McDaniels to Alexander-Walker and Anthony Edwards. Each has their own specific skillset and can challenge Murray in a different way.

McDaniels’ length is tough to beat. Alexander-Walker essentially lives in the opposition’s pocket, and Edwards is so big and strong that he’s like going up against a brick wall.

“I think it’s definitely a different feel and different flow to the game (with each of us),” Alexander-Walker said. “And I think when guys are so good, you can’t give them the same looks, because they’re going to pick up on it fast and they’re going to be able to adjust, so it’s just keeping them on their toes, keeping them guessing, trying to disrupt their rhythm.”

Conley noted Murray is one of those guys capable of elevating his game in winning time. He didn’t necessarily shoot well throughout Denver’s first-round series against the Lakers, yet he buried a pair of game winners in Game 2 and Game 5, the latter closed out the series.

Murray is one of the game’s elite closers with the way he can execute pick-and-rolls with Jokic.

Nori said the Wolves have to wear Murray down. They can do that easier with their full bevy of defenders.

“When you have those three guys on the perimeter, essentially it’s just wave after wave,” Nori said. “We’ve got to make sure we pick him up and make him work. We can’t just let him walk the ball up the floor. They haven’t been playing a whole lot of their bench, so if we can wear those guys down, maybe those 16-foot jumpers he’s shooting at the end of the game, if he doesn’t have legs, they come up a little bit short.”

Especially given Murray’s current physical state. On the DNVR Nuggets podcast this week, analyst Harrison Wind watched back Murray’s 40-point performance in Game 2 of the Nuggets’ series victory last year and made the following observations:

“He looked incredible, man. Like he looked unbelievable — how quick he was, how athletic he was, how much space he was generating between him and defender,” Wind said. “He doesn’t look like that right now, I’ll just say that.”

Because Murray, who’s been banged up at various points of the season, is currently battling a calf injury that nearly kept him out of Game 5 against the Lakers.

Murray was asked by Denver reporters on Thursday if a couple days off after the win on Monday helped his body heal.

“Yeah, for sure,” Murray said. “Hopefully, it’ll be good to go for Saturday.”

Regardless, Minnesota is going to do everything in its powers to tax the guard, in hopes of slowing him — and, in turn, the Nuggets — down.

“Make sure we make him work, continue to throw different bodies at him – whether that’s Nickeil, whether that’s Jaden and whether that is Ant,” Nori said. “But the one thing we’ve just got to make sure is be physical with him, make him feel us, like they always talk about saying, and just nothing easy for him.

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