DENVER — Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone can see the light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to the Nuggets' ongoing point guard competition, which began at the onset of training camp in Boulder exactly two weeks ago.
Jamal Murray will start at point guard in Denver's preseason finale against the Oklahoma City Thunder Tuesday night at Pepsi Center and while Malone hasn't named Murray the starter, it certainly seems that the Kentucky product has the inside track to that spot with the Nuggets' regular-season opener in Utah just nine days away.
"It's our last preseason game. Jamal sat out last game so Jamal is probably going to start tonight," Malone said Tuesday at shootaround. "And we'll see who gets the backup minutes behind him."
"Not one has just floored me and said 'wow.' Not one has been so bad where it's made the decision easy," Malone continued about the competition between Murray, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Jameer Nelson. "But I do have a pretty good feel of who I'm going to start and we'll still try to figure out who's going to play those backup minutes behind him."
Murray, who's averaging 9.9 points and 2.1 assists per game this preseason, came off a seven-point outing on just 2-9 shooting in Los Angeles last Monday and rebounded from what Malone called a “very tentative, lackluster game," with a 20-point breakout performance against that same Lakers team last Wednesday.
With Denver's final regular-season tune-up, where the Nuggets plan to play their starters meaningful fourth-quarter minutes, quickly approaching, Tuesday night could be a preview of what Malone's starting lineup looks like.
"All or nothing. If he doesn't play well against the reigning M.V.P. (Russell Westbrook), he's done," Malone joked. "Going into the game I have a pretty good idea of who I'm going to start next Thursday as our starting point guard. As far as Jamal, in particular, tonight I want him to go out there, not be scared, play hard, play aggressive, play with discipline, and when he's open, shoot the ball. If not, I want him to make a play for someone else."
Behind Murray, the matchup against the Thunder should give a clear indication of where Malone's thinking is when it comes to his backup. Nelson and Mudiay are still vying for that spot.
After injuring his toe in Denver's first practice of the year, Nelson played in the Nuggets' last two preseason games and with the emphasis Malone and his staff have placed on protecting the ball and limiting turnovers, the veteran seems to be a hold a slight upper hand on Mudiay for the backup minutes. Nelson scored just two points on 1-5 shooting against the Lakers last week and totaled the same stat line versus the Spurs Sunday, but has committed just two turnovers in the 41 preseason minutes he's logged.
"In fairness to Jameer, it's been hard for him," Malone said noting that Nelson has had to play through an injury. "One thing you can look at Jameer, through two games played, 11 assists only two turnovers. That's something that you want from your point guard position.
"Jameer does what point guards should do; he takes care of the ball," Malone noted after Denver's loss in San Antonio. "Last game against L.A. (Lakers) he had six assists, one turnover. Tonight I think he had five assists, zero turnovers. Jameer goes out, he runs his team. He struggled to make his shot tonight but he does other things where he makes those guys around him better and he does his job of running his team and getting them organized."
After a promising showing in Denver's first preseason game in Golden State where Mudiay scored 19 points to go with six assists, the 21-year-old has struggled in the Nuggets' other three matchups. He's racked up 13 turnovers to 12 assists over that span.
"Emmanuel, I thought in Golden State was really terrific,' Malone said. "And turnovers have been an issue for him. Obviously, he has over four turnovers per game right now which is too high."
Against the Thunder, Malone will evaluate both Nelson and Mudiay but Denver will also focus on rebounding, which has been a thorn in the Nuggets' side through four preseason games, and of course defense.
After corralling 46.4 rebounds per game a year ago — the second most in the league to Oklahoma City — and averaging the fifth most in the league per 100 possessions, Denver has struggled this preseason in that category. They've been out-rebounded in three of their four preseason contests.
Defensively, the Nuggets continue to implement their more aggressive defensive scheme, which has been impressive at times this preseason but took a step back Sunday in San Antonio. Denver allowed the Spurs to shoot 57 percent from the field and three-point range.
"I've been really happy about our pick-and-roll defense," Malone said. "And the most exciting thing about that is our players are just as excited. Nikola Jokic for me, and I may be overanalyzing, but Nikola looks like a different player on the defensive end of the floor. The energy and effort he's playing (with). And requiring him to be up at the level (of the ball) and be aggressive. We're getting a lot of deflections. We had 18 deflections against San Antonio. We're getting more steals this year and hopefully that aggressive defense in pick-and-rolls will help us also score easier baskets in transition."