Kiszla: Inching closer to return from ACL injury, can Jamal Murray handle being less than the Blue Arrow capable of scoring 50 on any given night?

The biggest challenge for Nuggets guard Jamal Murray in his return from a devastating injury will be an insidious foe he has never really faced on the court:

Doubt.

While there’s little question Murray has crushed rehabilitation from a torn ACL suffered nearly 11 months ago and indications are his surgically repaired left knee will soon being fit for competition, what nobody can know for certain is if he’s mentally prepared to be less than the Blue Arrow capable of scoring 50 points in the NBA playoffs.

“You have to temper the excitement of getting Jamal back with the realization that he’s not going to be the same Jamal right away,” Malone said Wednesday.

Forward Michael Porter Jr., itching to return to active duty after lumbar spine surgery in December, is scheduled to practice this week with the Grand Rapids Gold, the G League affiliate of Denver.

If I interpret the comments of coach Michael Malone correctly, there are promising signs Murray could also return to action before the end of the regular season.

Malone, however, offered one important caveat.

“It’s not just going to be the trainers and doctors that have said: ‘You’re cleared.’ It’s going to be Jamal saying: ‘You know what? I’m clearing myself. I’m ready to make this step and go out there and play.’ That’s going to be the hardest part, whether it’s this season or the beginning of next year, is finding a way to get back to playing without thinking,” Malone said.

“That’s the biggest challenge for a player: ‘Can I push off my left leg? Can I jump off my left leg?’ If you’re thinking about everything you’re doing out there, now you’re not playing the game to the level you’re capable of playing. That’s going to be a process. We all understand that.”

While Murray moves tantalizingly close to receiving the OK for full participation on the practice court, his actual return to the Denver lineup will likely be dictated by a mixture of prudence and pride.

On nights like this, when the lackadaisical Nuggets saw their six-game winning streak abruptly ended with an ugly 119-107 loss to lowly Oklahoma City, a healthy Murray certainly could’ve given his teammates a jolt. But that’s a temptation his coach vows to resist.

“Zero pressure from me,” Malone has repeatedly told Murray. “When you tell me you’re ready to play, you’re going to play. I’m not going to come to you and say, ‘Hey, we really need you tonight.’ I want him to feel really good about returning to play.”

That’s why I suspect a huge factor in determining the timetable for Murray’s return is how a defiantly proud competitor handles the reality that any basketball player recovering from an ACL injury must deal with performances that can be annoyingly inconsistent from one game to the next, as well as the frustration of once-explosive athleticism being unreliable for weeks or even months after donning a uniform.

“You take anybody away from something they love for a year, there’s going to be baby steps. There’s going to be some good days and there’s going to be some bad days,” said Malone, citing Golden State guard Klay Thompson’s uneven return from two serious injuries as a prime example.

If Murray can accept being a lesser version of his old self, I would bet he will play again for the Nuggets within a month. “No one wants it more than Jamal Murray. We all want it. The fans want it,” Malone said.

But would anyone blame him if Murray decided to wait until next season, when he’d be more ready to perform like the Blue Arrow we’ve come to know and love?

Center Nikola Jokic has carried Denver to a 36-26 record without the benefit of any real contribution from either Murray or Porter. Yes, the road back from major surgery can be fraught with bumps in the road. The return of the team’s No. 2 and No. 3 stars, however, are now close enough they can taste it.

“I don’t have a timeline for either one of those guys. But I do know they are both inching closer to a potential return,” Malone said. “And that’s exciting.”

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