February 3, 2023

On April 12, 2021, Nuggets point guard Jamal Murray rebounded from the Warriors’ Stephen Curry with a missed 3 and accelerated with his team on the road, 111-104 down the frontcourt. Murray didn’t have much time to help the Nuggets as the game was in the last minute of regulation.

He had a step on Andrew Wiggins and ran past Kent Bazemore and neither Curry nor Draymond Green were able to challenge Murray on the edge. It looked like the 2016 lottery pick from Kentucky would score slightly to make it a two-holding game. But as Murray launched into the paint, he awkwardly lost the ball and crashed into support, pinning his left knee on the Chase Center floor. No foul was called, making Murray’s fourth turnover and Denver’s 20th turnover. But that was the least of her worries.

Murray tore the cruciate ligament in his left knee. Nine days after the injury, he underwent surgery in Southern California to reconstruct his knee and was ruled out indefinitely. He doesn’t count his two preseason games as his return date because the Oct. 3 home game against the Thunder that Murray played in came 539 days after his first injury.

“Five hundred days in the fifties,” Murray said the athlete.

When Murray was injured, he said he consulted with “anyone who had an injury” as he began his rehabilitation process, a list that included Chicago’s Zach LaVine, Miami’s Victor Oladipo, the Warriors’ Klay Thompson and the current Clippers John Wall included.

“Anyone who’s had an injury, a serious injury, has come forward,” Murray said. “I was just saying to myself, just keep with the grind, it’s going to be a marathon and I can’t look at the few days ahead. I need to look down and know my time is coming.”

Murray was physically cleared for the game in early April, just before the Nuggets and two-time MVP Nikola Jokić began their first-round playoff series against eventual champion Warriors. But Murray wasn’t 100 percent, especially mentally. He didn’t play at all in the 2021-22 season, and he didn’t play in a Warriors gentleman sweep. During Game 2 of the series, Murray appeared to address his absence from the court a little over a year after his injury at the same arena.

“There’s a lot of ups and downs and you hear a lot of different things,” Murray said the athlete last week. “You just have to keep your work ethic and know that getting back to what you want to do is going to be a long process. You hear doubts, you hear rumours, you hear everything.”

The Nuggets hosted the Jazz to open their 2022-23 season on Oct. 19 — 555 days after Murray’s injury. But while he was back in the starting lineup for a Nuggets team that has high expectations, it was still a part of Murray’s return to the game.

“You just have to keep your cool and know that the work I’ve put into the weight room and rehab will show when it has to show,” Murray said. “So I just stuck with it. Didn’t get too high, didn’t get too low. And now that’s the fun part of my rehab, I’m just figuring it out.”

It appears that Murray is doing just that. The Nuggets have won five of their last six, and Murray has hit the 20-point mark in five of the last six games he’s played in, despite having sporadic big moments since the start of the season. His first dunk came in week two, right in front of LeBron James to clean up a quick break – Murray also dunked a second time in the same game.

The following week, Murray had his first series of straight 20-point games, highlighted by a reverse dunk on the road against Oklahoma City. That led to Nuggets point guard sophomore Bones Hyland declaring Murray was back.

But what really stood out about Murray’s game is his offensive control. While Jokić still leads the nuggets in assists per game (8.9), Murray has been a strong custodian, averaging 4.8 assists per game and just 1.9 turnovers. The assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.48 is a career high for Murray, and he’s been getting better lately.

In an away game against the LA Clippers last week, Murray had nine assists and just one turnover. His best cent came late in the first half when he worked on a pick and roll with Jokić. Murray turned elbow while Amir Coffey defended from behind. Murray got Coffey airborne with an up fake, then stepped into the alley to get the attention of Ivica Zubac. When Zubac responded, Jokić made himself available in the paint just outside the free throw circle, and Murray found him a floater. Overall, the Nuggets outplayed the Clippers by 22 points in Murray’s minutes, Murray’s best plus-minus of the season.

“I just have to say my pace is a little bit different,” Murray said after the Nuggets defeated the Clippers, putting together his third game of the season with at least nine assists and no more than one turnover. “It’s just more relaxed. I don’t force anything, I don’t do jumpy hangtime passes that I get myself into trouble for. I’m just a little more aware of my surroundings and moving at a better pace. I think that helped me read defense better and make passes without turning them over and get to my points.

And as mentioned before, scoring is slowly coming back too. Murray scored 21 points against the Clippers, but it was a 9-of-21 shooting. When the Nuggets hosted the Rockets for a miniseries, Murray had his two top-scoring games of the season, hitting a season-high 31 points (11 of 17 field goals) on November 28 and trailing with 26 points (9 of 15). Field Goals) on November 30th. It was the first time since the first round against the Jazz in 2020 that Murray had consecutive games at 60 percent shooting. In that series he hit 50 points twice. And Murray goes into Friday’s away game against the Atlanta Hawks with a season-best three-game streak in which he has at least 20 points.

“I just take it game to game,” Murray said the athlete before the Rockets games. “I feel like early in the season, in the first few games, I was just happy to be there. Just don’t force it, don’t really push it, don’t really be aggressive. Just let the ball come to me and I’ll find out. But now it’s pushing the problem more, getting on the color, taking off the dipping, all that stuff. So everything comes back and the confidence comes back.”

Only the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns have more wins than the 14-7 Nuggets in Friday’s games. Murray is back with Jokić on an offense that ranks third for efficiency, in large part due to elite shooting from the field overall (49.8 percent, second in the NBA) and from 3 (40.4 percent, also second).

Murray’s efficiency as a marksman isn’t quite what it used to be. He hits 44.5 percent of his field goals (up from 47.7 percent in 2021) and 37.9 percent of his 3-pointers (up from 40.8 percent in 2021). He’s still in the middle of his rehab; It’s just that playing games is now part of the process. And Murray has a goal of continuing to advance throughout the winter and into the postseason as the Nuggets attempt to win the Western Conference for the first time as an NBA franchise.

“It’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel when you’re so far away,” Murray said. “So it was really crucial to stay in the weight room and stick to my rehab routine and not jump too fast and think I’d have to do all sorts of crazy things in the game.

“I just have to take my time and be ready for April. And then hopefully I’ll see the best version of myself.”

(Photo by Jamal Murray: Isaiah J. Downing / USA Today)

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