The Denver Nuggets spent the weekend in Phoenix and came away with two gutsy wins over the Suns. Their reward is a record that is finally two games above .500 at 9-7, possession of fifth-place in the Western Conference standings and a three-game win streak. Nikola Jokic is in MVP-level form, Monte Morris has been absolutely clutch off the bench and Michael Porter Jr. is back with a shot that looks as pure as ever.

Things are looking up in Denver after a shaky start to the year. The back-to-back wins against Phoenix might have been the best of the season – but they might also cost the Nuggets a bit in the short-term.

There were grumblings well over a week ago that Jamal Murray might be injured, which was confirmed last Sunday after Denver’s loss to the Jazz when Murray admitted that his shooting elbow had been bothering him: “It’s a bruise in a spot where every time I extend, every time I fully extend, I feel it. … It’s just one of those things where I try to just block it out and not re-aggravate it.”

With Porter Jr. missing extended time in health and safety protocols, the bench struggling and their overall record under .500, Murray has not been given the opportunity to rest and heal his elbow yet this season. After Denver’s overtime win on Friday in which Murray played 40 minutes, yesterday’s back-to-back would have been a prudent time to give him the night off, especially with Devin Booker being listed as out.

Alarmingly, Murray showed up on the injury report as questionable due to a shoulder strain, seemingly incurred from the night before. Still, Murray was cleared and played a key role in the double-overtime victory, even if it required another 43 minutes of his service.

This was how he looked after the game:

Murray isn’t the only one who looked completely gassed. Jokic also crossed the 40-minute threshold in both games, but powered through fatigue to put up 29 points, 22 rebounds and six assists last night while taking over the game in double-OT. Those minutes aren’t inherently unnerving given the game situations, but what is alarming is the trend of high minutes so early in the season.

Both Jokic and Murray are already averaging over 35 minutes per game, career highs for each by three minutes. Jokic has played over 38 minutes seven times already in Denver’s 16 games; he only did that eight times all last regular season. It doesn’t help that the team is pretty awful offensively without him on the court. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Nuggets score 122 points per 100 possessions with Jokic, a difference of 15.8 points than from without him which is in the 98th percentile. Murray himself is in the 93rd percentile with a differential of 7.8 points.

The Nuggets already got a shortened offseason thanks to their run to the Western Conference Finals. There can certainly be no complaints about making it that far – but coupled with barely any training camp it’s not great that Denver has had to rely so much on these two early on.

One would think two hard-fought overtime wins would garner some amount of rest for the two players with the most mileage on the team. It doesn’t look like that will be the case:

Unfortunately, not resting Murray might be for good reason. The Nuggets squandered the easiest part of the schedule so far by dropping winnable games like the two to Sacramento or close losses against Dallas and Utah. As a result, they’ve had to make up ground at all costs, which has meant playing Jokic and Murray into the ground if needs be.

It won’t get easier from here. Denver plays every other day for the next week on the road against Dallas, Miami and San Antonio before returning home next Sunday to start another back-to-back, this time against Utah and Detroit. Only then do they get a few consecutive days of rest, but it’s short lived as they’re right back at it against the Lakers, Kings and Bucks.

The Nuggets are already in a somewhat precarious position in the standings. It’s still very early, but in a season with so much uncertainty every win will matter. But the Nuggets need Murray healthy for the postseason, not necessarily for January and February. Is two games over .500 enough cushion to rest Murray a bit? Based on Malone’s response it doesn’t seem so, but hopefully there’s a game or two soon which he can take off and heal up, especially if his shoulder is now in question. After Saturday’s win, he certainly deserves it.

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