The Denver Nuggets made sure the outcome of this matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers ended up much like the last one, as the Nuggets pulled away down the stretch thanks to Jamal Murray’s on-court heroics, winning 120-103. Murray had a career-high 50 points and was completely unbelievable, missing just 4 shots all night. Nikola Jokic had a triple double with 16 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists, while Michael Porter Jr. put up 21 points in the first half and Denver steamrolled through the fourth quarter behind Murray’s flames. Cleveland fought hard behind 23 points from Collin Sexton and a 20 /10 double-double from Jarrett Allen, but no one was going to take this victory from Murray tonight.

Game Flow

The Nuggets opened with a dime from Jokic at the three-point arc to Michael Porter Jr. for a dunk. Jarrett Allen hit a paint bucket but a Jokic-to-Green dunk showed how Denver can have almost anything it wants inside on the Cavs, but Green hurt himself and Denver had to call a timeout after the Cavs made a three on the other end. Murray finished the next possession with a layup, then Will Barton made a three off an MPJ assist. Porter got a block, then finished on the other end for a 13-5 lead. Murray’s steal and dunk forced a Cleveland timeout as Denver rolled early, hitting all 7 of its early shots. Porter’s two was countered by Collin Sexton’s 3 as the Cavs started working Sexton, Garland and Jarrett Allen. Allen finished an oop but Barton’s paint finish made it 21-10 with 5 minutes gone. 

Cleveland attacked inside for a couple of buckets, but Porter swished a three to answer. Denver got a bit discombobulated for a few possessions as Cleveland closed to 9, but Porter finished a Jokic pass to take the lead to double digits despite a couple of turnovers for Porter on attempted finishes. Denver went cold from the field, stuck on 28 with Nnaji airballing a three and finishing 1-for-7 streak that Monte Morris broke with a layup. Despite the cold streak, Facundo Campazzo hit a desperation three and Denver took a 33-23 lead into the second.

Denver finished in the paint to open, and scrambled around on defense with Campazzo at PG and Murray at the shooting guard to start the second. RJ Hampton and Will Barton played the three and four with Nnaji at center, which made them fast but mistake prone. JaVale McGee had no trouble finishing in the paint and a pair of Barton turnovers made it it 35-31 as Cleveland went on an 8-0 run. Barton’s fallaway was answered by Sexton, but MPJ hit another 3 – and then was thrown down on an attempted dunk by McGee. Hartenstein and McGee faced off briefly after that flagrant, with Hartenstein earning a tech somehow. But MPJ hit his free throws for the flagrant, Campazzo hit a three and Denver was back up 45-31. Sexton scored 10 Cleveland points in a row at one point in the quarter, but Garland’s three cut the lead to 5. Jokic hit a lineup, but Denver was sloppy with the bench/starter mix on the court. MPJ kept hitting as the starters filtered back in, though, and with Murray and Jokic back on the court Denver stretched the lead to 15. Murray swished a three to get Denver to a 60-45 lead. Another Murray three opened the doors on the first half blowout as Denver defended using mostly a zone, and a putback by Porter gave him 21 in the half to go with Murray’s 20. A beautiful MPJ effort on the glass left Jokic with the last bucket and a 69-50 halftime lead.

Nikola Jokic and Collin Sexton traded threes to open the third quarter. RJ Hampton missed a three of his own as he opened the half with the starters, but a nice Jokic dunk on a Hampton pass cleaned up that issue. Cleveland came out hard to start the quarter though, making tough shots and trying to get back into it. Porter missed a fallaway and the Nuggets played some disorganized basketball, but Jokic got to the line to calm things down. Hampton kept scrambling on defense and got himself to the line as well, but some trouble with defensive rebounds made it hard to pull away. Denver was up 16 when Murray turned the ball over for a layup, making it 79-65. The two teams traded buckets and mistakes for a couple minutes, but the effort on defense for Denver was not paying off on the other end with missed jumpers. Hampton took a pass from Jokic baseline for a finish, MPJ missed a wide-open three to stay scoreless in the third and Hampton kept fouling on extra-effort plays while Cleveland chipped away. They made it 85-75 Denver with 3:30 to go, then the Nuggets turned the ball over – their 13th of the evening so far – and the Cavs cut the lead to single digits. Murray made a pair of threes to keep Denver’s lead comfortable and the Nuggets finished the quarter up 15, 95-80. 

Cleveland opened the fourth with a paint bucket but Murray answered with another three, shooting 14-of-16 at that point. He blistered the nets and single-handedly kept Denver’s scoring up with Jokic on the bench. Denver was up 109-95 thanks to Murray’s incredible scoring, and even MPJ missing the bucket that would have given Jokic a triple-double with 7 minutes to go wasn’t a big deal. The Nuggets contained Cleveland with Campazzo and Murray playing the passing lanes, but no one could get Jokic that 10th assist until Murray hit another 3 on a Jokic-led break. Murray would not be denied on offense, tying his career-high at 48 with 4 minutes to go and Denver up 114-95. And then Murray sealed the deal with a career-high 50 points like this:

And from there it was academic. Denver was all smiles as they blew out the Cavs 120-103.

Final Thoughts

  • Murray was volcanic, and when he’s on like that it’s a singularly unique experience. Opening 17-of-20 will do that, but some nights he just can’t miss and it’s always a pleasure and a privilege to see Jamal when he’s in the zone. He steadied the ship at the end of the third quarter and kept the bench in it during that danger zone Denver has lived in from the end of the third through the first few minutes of the fourth. Today he was special from the field and he knew it. He burned the nets down, put the Nuggets on his back and made sure this would be a Denver victory. To quote Scott Hastings, he was special tonight, and that 50-burger on just 25 shots was amazing to witness.
  • Denver fed MPJ early, and it paid off. He had 21 points in the first half, with a nice mix of layups, step-in jumpers and made threes. He had an airball and some turnovers but – unlike in other games – Denver kept feeding him and he responded on both ends. Every game this year that Porter has shot more than 13 shots he’s scored at least 22 points, and tonight was no different. MPJ played a lot at power forward with JaMychal Green getting injured early and he looked great in that half. He slowed in the third quarter offensively but still crashed the glass and looked much more engaged than in some previous outings. Finding the right rhythm with Murray, MPJ and Jokic on the court hasn’t been easy, but it worked out tonight despite’s Porter’s finishing struggles in the second half. Maybe that was halftime cramping after being thrown down in the first half by JaVale McGee, maybe he was tired – and maybe he just missed. Regardless, Denver showed that MPJ can get touches and shots and the other stars can still eat well. It was a good effort.
  • Third quarters still suck, but at least Denver stemmed the bleeding. Nuggets have been outscored in 10 of their last 14 games but against the Cavs they only lost the quarter by 4, which is a far cry from some of the disasters they’ve faced before. Coach Michael Malone kept Murray in to finish the quarter and he drove the rally that kept Denver’s lead at 15 when it was at single digits just a few minutes earlier. The Nuggets need to figure out their third quarter woes and how to avoid complete collapses that give up their first half leads, and tonight it worked out.
  • Happy Birthday Nikola! Jokic got to celebrate his special day with a win (thanks Jamal!) and in the end that’s the best present to have. He still contributed a triple-double, though – even on his birthday he doesn’t take the day off.