SALT LAKE CITY – Jamal Murray couldn’t help but smile.
It didn’t matter that the Nuggets had gotten pummeled by an uninspiring Jazz unit, or that he’d been fairly inconsistent in his first game back since ACL surgery. What else did anyone expect after an 18-month layoff?
Murray was happy to have played 26 minutes, which amounted to the deepest he’d played into a game since returning, preseason or not. He didn’t mind going 5-of-13 from the field for only 12 points, or only managing just one assist in the Nuggets’ 123-102 season-opening loss. Though he wasn’t asked this directly, it probably didn’t even bother him that he was a team-worst minus-19 while he was on the floor.
“I know I’m smiling,” he said after the game.” We lost. I’ve never smiled in a loss before.”
Murray was excited just to be back on the floor and feeling a raucous Utah crowd. He wasn’t put off by a few rushed shots, or split-second reads that went awry. He knows those instincts will return with time, meaning Wednesday’s contest could be chalked up to growing pains of a long season.
“He was not even that bad,” supportive teammate Nikola Jokic deadpanned after the game.
In the aftermath of Wednesday’s loss, Murray was even looking forward to the mundane.
“I get to go on the plane and watch some film,” he said.
When Murray came out on the court for his pre-game shooting routine, a group of 25 or so Nuggets fans, many donning his famous No. 27 jersey, erupted in cheers. He gave them a knowing smile and wave, then proceeded through his warm-up with a broad smile across his face. Even the misses couldn’t erase his grin.
When he got on the court, veteran Jazz guard Mike Conley walked with him out of a timeout and told him how happy he was to see him healthy. It was the same reaction Murray’s gotten from a half-dozen other NBA players in opposing arenas throughout the preseason. Outside of the lines, NBA players consider the league a brotherhood.
Murray said it was good to see former Nuggets guard Malik Beasley, too, though the Jazz shooting guard didn’t have any extra words of encouragement for his friend.
“No, he had extra words for us, though,” Murray joked.
When Beasley drained a clutch 3-pointer in the fourth quarter, he spent a few extra seconds dancing on the 3-point line, while staring directly at Denver’s bench.
Murray took it in and embraced all of it. Whether it was jumping off his surgically-repaired knee, or sprinting down the floor to contest a breakaway transition opportunity, Murray didn’t hesitate. He sprung into passing lanes in the third quarter, when the Nuggets tried to erase a 22-point halftime deficit.
“I wasn’t thinking much out there,” he said.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone saw nothing from his star point guard that surprised him and cautioned that it would take time before he resembled anything close to his former self.
“As I’ve been warning everybody, be careful with your criticism,” his coach said.
Murray admitted his conditioning was far off, but even that he turned into a postgame joke. Given how bad the Nuggets’ defense was, and the fact that the blowout couldn’t diminish Murray’s mood, it begged the question whether anything could’ve dimmed his smile on Wednesday night.
“It’s just good to see myself out there, honestly,” he said.
And then he joked that the next time the Nuggets lose, maybe he’d consider getting upset.