The NBA season is a long, tumultuous path filled with ups, downs, and everything in between. The Denver Nuggets are experiencing this tumultuousness first hand, losing player after player to injury. First, it was determined that none of Michael Porter Jr., Jarred Vanderbilt, or the newly signed Isaiah Thomas would be available for the beginning of the season. Next, Will Barton went down in just the second game of the season with a hip injury. After that, Gary Harris sustained a hip injury as well. Finally, Paul Millsap, who tore a ligament in his wrist last season, went down with a broken toe against the Charlotte Hornets on December 7th.

Since then, the Nuggets have played five games, losing the first one to the Atlanta Hawks on the last game of a road trip before heading home for four straight contests. One after another, Denver has won against playoff (and even championship) hopefuls despite their star cast of injured talent. At 21-9, the Nuggets currently possess the best record in the Western Conference, a surprising turn given the injury luck and a tough schedule. How are the Nuggets pulling off these shorthanded wins and staying on top of the loaded West?

The emergence of Nikola Jokic as an MVP candidate and Jamal Murray as a stone cold killer in the 4th quarter.

The Joker takes Center Stage

Nikola Jokic’s scoring has wavered over the course of the season, averaging 18.1 points per game this season compared to 18.5 per game last season. With consistent contributions coming from Denver’s bench all season, Jokic hasn’t had to be a major threat looking for his own points for most of the year, rather a facilitator of success for others. The Nuggets have won frequently with Jokic embracing that mentality.

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To his credit though, the Serbian center has undergone a mentality shift over the last several games. During the month of December, the Nuggets have basically had at least two (mostly three) starters out of commission. The team has desperately needed Jokic to be the best version of himself, and he has delivered. The Joker has averaged 23.0 points, 11.8 rebounds, 8.0 assists, and 2.0 steals in December. For reference, those totals would rank 17th, 10th, 8th, and 6th in the NBA respectively.

In addition, Jokic has raised his defensive engagement and intensity several notches, contributing to Denver’s improved defensive performance this year. His 45 total steals this season are the second most in the NBA among centers behind Anthony Davis. His Defensive Rating of 103.7 ranks seventh among starting centers, a far cry from his national status as a defensive sieve. Jokic’s defensive engagement has changed the course of the contest in some of Denver’s most important wins this year.

Forced to do it all in the face of adversity, Jokic rising to the occasion is a great sign for the present and future of the Nuggets as a whole. The last eight years have featured a team without a star to rely on in big moments. When the going got tough over the last several years, the Nuggets either won with superior team basketball or didn’t win at all. Now, the Nuggets have a fallback plan when the entire team doesn’t have it. No Gary Harris? No Will Barton? No Paul Millsap? That’s okay. The Joker can cover all of those bases in a moment of need.

There are very few players with such innate feel for the moment, and Jokic has risen to meet the moment on several occasions in his career. In his second season, Jokic capitalized on his inclusion in the starting lineup to help guide Denver to the best Offensive Rating in the NBA post December 15th. Down the stretch of last season, Jokic put the Nuggets on his back and nearly carried the team into the playoffs. Now this season, Jokic is once again rising to the occasion, cementing his place as a fringe MVP candidate for what is currently the best team in the Western Conference.

The Blue Arrow emerges

Jokic hasn’t been the entire reason for Denver’s continued success. On top of solid bench play from a variety of places, Jamal Murray has not so quietly stepped into a major role for the Nuggets this month.

With Harris, Barton, and Millsap on the pine, Murray has performed like a second star in December. These last eight games, Murray has chipped in 19.0 points, 6.4 assists, and 5.4 rebounds per game, which would represent career highs across the board. The timing of Murray’s scoring has been extremely important as well. The third year point guard has averaged 7.0 points per game in the 4th quarter during December, showing a willingness to be “The Guy” at the end of games.

If there’s one weakness to Jokic’s game as a first option, it’s that he doesn’t always utilize a killer instinct in the 4th quarter, far more happy to trust his teammates to make plays as he sets the table for their success. Despite averaging 23.0 points in December, just 2.9 of those points have come in the final 12 minutes.

Murray is the perfect complement for this mentality. As the game moves into its fleeting moments, Murray takes pride in being the player to step on his opponent’s neck repeatedly. With furious cuts and to the basket, dazzling finishes at the rim, pull-up shots in the midrange, and the occasional back-breaking three-pointer, Murray’s growing arsenal of scoring moves are tailor made for the fourth quarter. The two-man game he runs with Jokic puts the scoring guard in an advantageous position, and Murray has done a great job finishing.

Nowhere is Denver’s two-man game between Jokic and Murray more visible than in clutch time. Jokic leads the NBA in assists in clutch time with 19, while Murray is second with 14.

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As the Nuggets continue to survive without key pieces, putting the ball in the hands of their two young stars has brought early returns. While neither Jokic nor Murray have shot the ball well from the perimeter (29.8% and 29.9% three-point shooting respectively) they have each improved their playmaking for others. Jokic’s 7.4 assists per game are a career high, as are Murray’s 5.1 dimes. Denver’s offensive scheme revolves around putting each of those two in a position to make plays for themselves and their teammates, and the 21-9 record speaks for itself.

Jokic and Murray represent many things for the Nuggets this year: perseverance, offensive prowess, new defensive beginnings. Beyond that though, they are the newest duo in the Mile High City to shoulder the load for their squad. Harris and Millsap may be better than Murray when they get back, but it’s clear that Denver’s future is trending toward a team centered around the aforementioned Jokic and Murray. At 23 and 21 years old respectively, Jokic and Murray are under team control for at least the next five seasons. The Joker is already on his max contract, and the Blue Arrow is soon to follow. He may not get max money on the open market, but Murray is one of the most skilled young guards in the NBA. He scored 48 points in a game against the Boston Celtics about six weeks ago. Very few 21-year-olds have ever done that, and the Nuggets would be right to hold onto him to see if he can ever recreate that scoring output.

The dynamic duo represent Denver’s ceiling in the playoffs as well. It’s hard to see one of Jokic or Murray ever being a true MVP and top tier playoff performer like LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, or James Harden, but the two of them together could have a similar impact. With Jokic holding things together at the seams and Murray delivering the final blow to the opponent, the Nuggets finally have their championship blue print. How well each of them performs in their role could determine whether that method is enough given the star power of today’s NBA.

Whatever the case may be, a shorthanded roster has allowed Denver’s young stars to prove themselves in big moments. Both Jokic and Murray are now the present and future for the Nuggets organization. Let’s see how far they go.

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