Witness enough progress and you may begin to think it’s inevitable. You may think that once Jamal Murray brushes off Nikola Jokic’s shoulder to initiate a dribble hand-off, even if he doesn’t catch the ball, the distance he creates from his defender will accumulate with every successive cut, until eventually, he has created enough space to create a basket.
The janky rhythm of Murray and Jokic’s two-man game has evolved in increments, fueling the Denver Nuggets’ offense. In the 2017-18 season, they narrowly missed the playoffs. The next year, they beat the San Antonio Spurs in the first round and took the Portland Trail Blazers to seven games.
In the bubble at Disney World, Murray went from the shiniest star in Jokic’s orbit to a galaxy unto himself. He had two 50-point games against the Utah Jazz alone. He put the Los Angeles Clippers away in a gusty, herky-jerky Game 7 performance, fading and double-clutching against the twin-headed monster of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. It was a culmination of the balance he developed dribbling on ice, turning Canada’s unfriendly terrain into the ultimate handicap.
He turned into a closer, the kind of scorer who can destroy a team’s sense of its own ceiling.
By hitting impossible shot after impossible shot, he showed that it’s possible to replicate the improbable. This year, with Jokic delivering an MVP season and Denver trading for Aaron Gordon, the Nuggets were poised to be even scarier than they were in the bubble. Forward movement seemed inevitable.
In reality, maintaining momentum depends on continuous movement. Things in motion can stop on a dime. That’s what happened Monday night when Murray drove through multiple Golden State Warriors defenders in the waning moments of a loss. He planted off his left leg and never quite launched.
He crumpled to the floor, and the Nuggets' championship hopes hung in the balance. Ten hours later, an MRI revealed Murray tore his ACL, shutting him down for the rest of the season.
In hindsight, maybe the bubble was the fulcrum of his demise. On Sept. 26, the Los Angeles Lakers knocked the Nuggets out of the playoff. Just 88 days later, they suited up for the first game of the compressed 2020-21 regular season. Murray came out of the gate unusually inconsistent. By the time he started to get it going, he had to sit out four games due to soreness in his right knee. Monday’s loss against the Warriors was his first game back.
Murray’s absence will put the Nuggets’ next two years in limbo, but for now, immediate problems await. Murray accounts for 24.4% of the Nuggets’ offense, and Jokic certainly doesn’t need more touches.
In Gordon’s first nine games with the Nuggets, he was freed of the burden of creating for himself. He’ll have to revert, to some extent, back to the clunky scoring of his Orlando days. Michael Porter Jr.’s blistering efficiency — 17.3 points on 12.5 shots and 42% shooting from three — suggests he could use more touches. Murray’s absence could accelerate his development.
Maybe, for Nuggets fans, there’s a silver lining. That’s not much consolation when your sights were set on championship gold, but progress has never been linear for Murray. He didn’t even make a shot in the first five games of his career. He has made a tradition of starting slow every season and bouncing back. He just turned 24 this February, and with a core under the age of 27, this isn’t the end of the story for the Nuggets. The momentum has stopped for now, but there’s always another way to the cup.
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