The Denver Nuggets delivered an uppercut to the Houston Rockets in the long-awaited return to the court for Jamal Murray, winning 134-124. It was supposed to be a ring ceremony night for champion Jeff Green, but that was pushed back at his request to the next game between the two teams on December 8th. Denver played like it was a celebration night however, as Jamal Murray returned to the lineup and Denver cruised with big games from Michael Porter Jr. (30 / 10 / 5) and Nikola Jokic (32 / 10 / 15). Jalen Green for Houston played a terrific game with 26 points, 6 rebounds and 9 assists, but nothing was slowing Denver’s assault down on this night.

Game Recap

The first scoring play of the game was Jamal Murray down to Nikola Jokic, who passed out of a swarm of Houston defenders to an open MPJ for a three, and it felt like Nuggets Basketball was back. Jokic pivoted around Sengun next time down for an open layup, but then Murray went down on a rolled ankle but after a timeout he came back with tighter laces on his shoes and hit a deep three at the end of the clock, a perfect encapsulation of his habit of playing very well when hurting. Porter hit a straight-away 3, then another off a Murray assist. Justin Holiday and KCP both made shots to take Denver to an early 19-7. Houston finally hit a mid-range jumper after some iffy shots and turnovers without Fred VanVleet, but Denver answered with a classic Jokic/Murray pick-and-roll for an easy Nikola bucket and forced a timeout.

Murray came out of the game at that timeout, but Jokic hit a four-footer and MPJ rattled in a three as the Nuggets put it on the Rockets early 28-11 in just the first 7 minutes. Nnaji – playing some power forward without Aaron Gordon – hit a layup, while Denver made sure Houston didn’t get anything easy. Denver went to Jokic with four bench players with just over 3 minutes to go and pushed the lead up to 19 off eight first quarter assists from Jokic. DeAndre Jordan then came in for Jokic as Jabari Smith Jr. made a three for Houston, but Christian Braun finished a baseline dunk in response. Denver and Houston traded buckets for the last couple of minutes, punctuated by a Reggie-Jackson deep three and ended the quarter up 41-26.

Reggie Jackson banked in a deep 3 and Zeke Nnaji had a couple of good and effective challenges on the defensive end, but the Rockets were still finding easier ways to score early in the second quarter than they had in the first. Jeff Green was making his shots while Julian Strawther had his bounce out. Reggie Bullock Jr. cut the lead to 8, 44-36 as the Rockets went on a 10-0 run to cause Jokic to re-enter the game and immediately scored on a layup and then a put-back on a missed MPJ three. Murray also re-entered the game and buried a three of his own for a 51-38 Nuggets lead. Michael Porter Jr. hit a couple of layups on some great moves and Murray got three free throws on a Sengun foul. He missed a putback but buried another three and then Jokic yammed a dunk on a beautiful cut and MPJ assist.

Jokic tapped in another shot but the Rockets kept making threes every time it looked like the Nuggets might start to extend their lead. The lead was 65-52 when MPJ buried another three, then got fouled on his next attempt for free throws. MPJ finished the first half with 23 points and the Nuggets wrapped with a Jokic step-in three and a 76-59 lead.

Jamal Murray was back out with the starters to begin the second half but still played with an obvious limp. Jokic hit a couple of layups to counter Houston’s opening three-pointer, and Murray with the shake-and-bake three made it 83-66 early in the quarter. Jokic his a nice free-throw-level shot, followed by a beautiful pick-and-roll bounce pass from Murray to Jokic for the finish, but again Denver’s defense wasn’t there to slow players like Sengun from getting what they want, “forcing” Malone to take a timeout up 87-72. Right after, Jokic made an incredible pass for a Holiday three.

MPJ hit a midrange shot after some Rockets free throws, but Jalen Green made a couple of Houston threes. Denver answered with another Holiday three-pointer and some Jokic free throws, and a beautiful scoop finish on a drive from Reggie Jackson. A Jokic free throw gets Denver to 100 points with over three minutes to go in the third, but Denver went cold for a couple of minutes and Houston took advantage. Jeff Green had a traditional three point play to cut the Denver lead to 101-89, but Porter ended a 7-0 run with a rim-protected layup. Jaylen Green made two more threes and a free throw and whittled Denver’s lead down to 108-97 at the end of three despite MPJ hitting another three.

After a 38 point third quarter from Houston, Denver opened the fourth with a steal from MPJ and a fastbreak layup for Murray. Houston finally missed a couple of shots but the Nuggets answered with bricks of their own until the alley oop from Murray to Christian Braun. Denver got stuffed a couple times their next time down the court but kept a double-digit lead at 113-100 when Jokic came back in the game. KCP and Braun each hit a three to make it 121-104, and the Nuggets cruised from there, finally able to sustain a big lead. Nikola Jokic got his 70th career triple double at the 4 minute mark and came out of the game to a standing ovation shortly after with Denver up 131-112, and Denver’s final margin was 10 at 134-124.

Three Things

MPJ was outstanding. It wasn’t just the 23 first-half points, it was the way he played: lived up to his size with rebounding and effort, took advantage of the space Houston allowed him to operate, moved off-ball and moved the ball with intent to get some assists. Everything he did felt like he was playing within himself rather than reaching for something that wasn’t there. After the game he said he should have made “9 or 10” three pointers instead of the 7 he did make with how many good setups his teammates gave him, and talked about wanting to bounce back personally after a less-than-stellar performance against the Clippers. Mike’s headspace has been consistent all year regardless of his ups and downs, but his movement looked much better in this game so perhaps his ankle is finally healing up and his confident shot is returning alongside it.

Murray is back! Hopefully his ankle doesn’t cause him any more issues after this game, but 16 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists doesn’t start to address how great it was to have him back and how much movement and chemistry he brought back to Denver’s offense. It’s not a coincidence that the Nuggets tied their season-high in points with a free-flowing, impediment-free halfcourt game that minimized turnovers and maximized impact. Murray played like he’d never left, and with him back Denver again had that championship offense flowing. About that defense though…

Nuggets will need a to find a little defense on the road. Denver gave up 120 to a Rockets team without Fred VanVleet, it’s point guard who averages 16 points and 9 assists a game this year. Coach Michael Malone cannot have been happy about that, and the Nuggets will need more defense as they leave the comfortable confines of Ball Arena for some more road life. Justin Holiday will have to figure out his rotations with units he has not really played on this year yet, and Denver could use Aaron Gordon’s abilities on that end for sure. But in the end, with their offense re-established, finding some key stops doesn’t seem like the world’s biggest hardship for the defending champs. Welcome back, Mal!

Celebrate with some DeAndre Jordan victory kisses.