Nuggets Journal: Weathering the storm until Jamal Murray returns

OKLAHOMA CITY – Let’s end the speculation right now. Jamal Murray’s return isn’t imminent.

Despite the tantalizing videos of Murray going through his pre-game routine ahead of most games, the injured point guard won’t be back by January or February, according to Nuggets coach Michael Malone.

Speaking on Altitude, the team’s flagship radio station, Malone said he came across a report suggesting he’d be back by February.

“I was laughing, and I was (ticked) off at the same time because that’s just irresponsible,” Malone said.

The Nuggets’ brain trust has gone to great lengths to insulate Murray from any undue pressure. They don’t want him thinking he needs to rush himself to fulfill some arbitrary timeframe. Murray will return when Murray’s ready.

A month ago in Phoenix, which would’ve been barely seven months since tearing his left ACL, Murray followed Malone into his pre-game news conference. Before the mundane back-and-forth ensued with traveling media, Murray belted out a plea for his coach.

“Play me!” he said.

With injuries stacking up like bingo cards, Malone cracked back: “Don’t tempt me.”

Earlier this week, Murray shared his frustration with his quarter-of-a-million Twitter followers: “I just wanna play again man damn.”

During his pre-game workouts, it’s not uncommon to see him rain down 3-pointers like his knee never buckled in the first place. Walking through the bowels at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, there was Murray tossing a medicine ball against a wall, building his core strength for his eventual return.

If you didn’t know any better, you’d think Murray was the same as the rest of his teammates, hoisting jumpers and honing jab-steps as if tip-off was near.

His triumphant return is coming. We just don’t know when.

But aside from his physical capacities, which will determine his return date more than any other factor, the healthy Nuggets have a stake in this as well.

Ahead of Wednesday’s game in Oklahoma City, Malone reminded his team of the standings. It’s at least the second time he’s done so in the last two weeks. Despite an almost comical rash of injuries, including long-term absences from rotation fixtures like Michael Porter Jr. and P.J. Dozier, the Nuggets are firmly entrenched in the playoff race.

Entering Sunday, they were 15-16 and just three games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for fourth place. The Nuggets had also played only 14 games at home, the fewest of any playoff team in their conference.

By hook or by crook — or maybe scotch tape and chewing gum — the Nuggets are keeping it together.

Given their injuries and their arduous travel schedule, there’s a reason Malone has consistently praised his team’s outlook. Nuggets management feels the same way. To be where they’re at not only keeps the flame burning on the playoffs but it maintains a window – and a justification – for bringing Murray back whenever he feels ready.

The other tell, as The Denver Post reported this past week, is that the Nuggets are on the hunt for an upgrade on the wing.

You think that’d be the team’s intention if they thought this season was a wrap?

In the last 10 games (5-5), the Nuggets are second in the NBA with 28.8 assists per game. Their 3-point shooting has finally thawed and Denver’s connecting on over 37% of its looks, good for eighth in the NBA. At more than 112 points per game, the Nuggets’ offense has the potential to dance with most scoring outfits in the league.

With COVID wreaking havoc on the league, and the toll of the NBA’s condensed schedules becoming apparent on lengthy injury reports, this season is about survival. The Nuggets aren’t worried about how menacing the Suns and Warriors look atop the conference or what a healthy Nets team is capable of doing in the postseason. This year is about weathering the storms they’ve encountered.

And as long as they continue to do that, Murray might be waiting for them on the other side.

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