The Denver Nuggets lost in ugly fashion to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday night. There’s no way around it. Holding a lead midway through the fourth quarter, the Nuggets relinquished their grasp on the game very quickly, allowing a worse team to battle back into the picture and ultimately defeat them.
Interestingly, the major momentum shift occurred when the starters returned for the Nuggets at the 4:50 mark in the fourth quarter. Denver led 100-95 with possession of the ball when Michael Malone reinserted Jameer Nelson and Danilo Gallinari, the two most veteran leaders that play major minutes. Both players played fine for the most part during the final stretches of the game (Nelson had four turnovers). While Nelson was blasted for his final shot attempt, a midrange jumper after dancing among the trees, it wasn’t as low percentage of a shot as everyone believes it to be. Nelson shoots 47.1 percent from in between 16 feet and the three point line, A.K.A. long twos. It wasn’t an optimal look, certainly, but it wasn’t a terrible one.
That said, the story of the game for me is Jamal Murray. With Emmanuel Mudiay out and Nelson starting in his place, Murray was asked to shoulder some backup point guard duties with the second unit. This is a big deal, as only seven percent of Murray’s minutes have come as the primary point guard this year, most of those in garbage time next to Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez.
Murray put up 17 points and three assists on 7/13 from the field. He only attempted two threes as well, meaning that the majority of his work was done driving toward the rim.
Murray starts out his night in a staple play in Denver’s offense, a dribble hand off with Nikola Jokic. Murray receives the ball at the top of the key and flows into a pick and roll with Jokic running with him. Danilo Gallinari starts out attached to the paint, but he quickly moves out.
At this point, Murray has the ball on the attack, and he has a number of options. He has an open lane ahead of him, and he makes the correct decision to take advantage. If Karl-Anthony Towns was in better position to stop Murray, the ball could be fed to Jokic, who’s floater is near money at this point.If either Nemanja Bjelica or Andrew Wiggins sag into the paint too far, both Gallo and Wilson Chandler (who is rotating to the wing) are available to catch-and-shoot a three point jumper.
As it happens, the lane stays open, so Murray goes for a layup and is fouled by Towns. It is a simple play, but with so many easy options for Murray to run through in checklist fashion, it will help him develop with the ball in his hands.
The next play is what makes Murray so special with the ball in his hands though.
In transition, Darrell Arthur settles at the top of the key to set a pick for Murray, forcing Cole Aldrich to switch onto the quick guard. Aldrich does a good job containing the initial drive, so Murray backs out, bringing Aldrich with him.
The threat of Murray’s jump shot forces Aldrich to come off the elbow, and that’s all the space Murray needs to blow by him. Murray’s speed with the ball in his hands is very deceptive, and he changes direction incredibly quickly.
Aldrich isn’t exactly Bill Russell out there, but Murray’s move got him into scoring position before Aldrich could complete his first step. Murray got off a clean look and sank the floater (we will talk about Chandler, not shown, trying to post up while Murray has a center on him on the perimeter another time).
With Will Barton playing more of a facilitating role off the bench, Murray was left to attack in a way that Emmanuel Mudiay has attacked with Jokic as the primary facilitator. Barton has proven to be a solid point guard in the past, and he had six assists on Sunday night. With Murray as a scoring guard next to Barton, the bench performed very well.
At this point, when Nelson, Murray, and Barton share the floor, the Nuggets have a +7.2 Net Rating per NBAWowy!, a pretty solid number. There’s very little reason for Michael Malone to play Jamal Murray at point guard when the three guard configuration off the bench has been so strong. That being said, the NBA trade deadline is fast approaching, and if Nelson holds more value to another team than he holds with Denver, the Nuggets have yet another reason to make that move.
For Nuggets fans desperately wanting Nelson off the team, I get it. There’s an exciting young guard that needs more minutes, and the team is 18-25, regardless of the standings. Jamal Murray isn’t quite ready to shoulder the point guard responsibilities for a team with playoff aspirations, but the flashes he is showing are incendiary. It’s very clear that Murray is a talented player who will be making great offensive plays for a long time. The only question: when will the changing of the point guard finally occur?
(Thanks to DownToBuck and his incredible work on YouTube for compiling the highlights!)