Through 15 regular-season games, the Denver Nuggets are 4-1 when Jamal Murray scores 20-plus points. When he shoots at least 50 percent from the field they’re 5-1. Denver’s also 5-1 when the 20-year-old shoots better than 40 percent from three with their only loss coming on opening night in Utah in front of a raucous Vivint Smart arena crowd that nearly drew a noise violation from the Salt Lake City PD when the Jazz rallied from a 12-point deficit in the game’s final 15 minutes.
The Nuggets are approaching the quarter-pole of the NBA season and so far, they’ve gone as their sophomore lighting rod, who only started seven games in his rookie year at point guard and who won’t be able to legally drink in the states until February, has gone.
Murray could still be fraternizing on Thursday nights in Lexington but instead, he’s mingling with Denver’s top one percent at charity galas and shooting the Nuggets’ offense back towards elite status.
Murray’s not the linchpin of Denver’s high-flying attack that’s quickly approaching the efficiency they saw last season and is suddenly the league’s sixth-best offense after scoring at a league-average mark for much of this year, that title is reserved for Nikola Jokic. But Murray, who’s tasked with getting Denver into their sets and initiating the read-and-react offense that’s exclusively built for high-IQ, unselfish and usually veteran personnel, has more power over the direction of the Nuggets’ attack and can dictate possessions as the point guard to a higher degree than most.
Denver poured in a season-high 146 points against New Orleans and their half-court offense, which just four night’s earlier in Portland registered the worst efficiency in the league so far this year, was back in the 99th percentile, according to CleaningTheGlass.com.
Murray finished with 31 points — one off the career-high he set six days ago against Orlando — on 13-18 shooting and went 3-7 from three-point land. He dished out four assists with zero turnovers in 34 minutes and as a team, Denver racked up 37 assists on 48 made field goals. Murray was excellent on offense against New Orleans but some were more impressed with another facet of his game.
“I loved the pace that he was playing with. And every time I talk to you guys, you ask what does Jamal have to do? He’s got to set the pace that we want to play at, he’s got to be aggressive and he’s got to play with confidence,” Nuggets’ coach Michael Malone said as he lectured an assembled group of reporters following Denver’s 146-114 win. “And you’re seeing that with a lot more consistency right now. He’s starting to become a consistent starting point guard in the NBA and when he gets going like that…I mean we put up 37 in the first quarter. He was a big part of that.”
Like Malone alluded to, it’s more than just the raw production that the Nuggets need from Murray. Sure, when he registers a 20-spot Denver will likely find themselves within striking distance but their team-central attack that’s based on more than just one player getting his needs to be initiated with pace.
Check out the pace Murray plays with on Denver’s second, third and fourth possessions of the game. Even on a Pelicans’ make, Murray pushes the ball up the floor, gets the Nuggets into their set or finds a seam in the defense for himself.
“I think our pace was a lot better than in Portland where we played in the half-court and we didn’t execute the way we did today,” Murray said from his corner locker after the game. “We ran and we pushed the pace and we played at our pace. In Portland, I think we played to their game. Once we play to our game, we’re a really good team.”
That 37-point first quarter set the Nuggets in motion. Denver cruised to a 32-point win, which was cemented when Anthony Davis went to the Pelicans’ locker room just a minute into the third quarter with the Nuggets clinging to an eight-point lead after an accidental headbutt from Jokic and never returned.
“They couldn’t guard us,” Malone said after the game.
“We had some great offensive possessions where the ball was just flying around the court generating completely wide open shots,” Malone added. “And that’s really beautiful to watch when you play the game the right way like we did tonight.”
Denver’s offense and Murray, were also helped by the return of shooting guard Gary Harris, who missed the Nuggets’ past two matchups with shoulder soreness. It doesn’t sound like Harris is back to 100 percent yet but his presence on the floor, off-ball movement, spatial awareness, and basketball IQ were all dearly missed in Portland.
Harris looked just fine too. He scored 22 points on a clean 9-11 shooting, knocked in four threes and finished a game-high plus-41 on the night.
It’s no coincidence that the 37 assists, which Malone referred to as “an incredible number,” coincided with Harris’ return. Denver passed the ball 332 times against New Orleans, according to NBA.com, way up for their season average of 298.2 heading into Friday night’s matchup.
Denver and Murray showed out for a healthy Friday crowd and a nationally televised audience that saw the high-flying Nuggets’ attack they expected. The Nuggets’ offense, with three new starters in Murray, Wilson Chandler, and Paul Millsap, will still go through their ups-and-downs this season like they experienced in Portland but they’ll gradually become more consistent. They’re growing, developing a hardy cohesion and will likely be locked into a top-10 offense in short order.
When dissecting Denver’s attack, sometimes it seems like you’re solving a college-level math equation with an endless amount of different variables and components where one small hiccup can derail a possession. But to Murray, it’s just basketball.
“When the arena’s rocking like that…” Murray responded when asked about the Pepsi Center crowd an hour or so after he was granted the exclusive on-court postgame interview reserved for that night’s standout performer. “You have to make the shot.”