CHICAGO – Jamal Murray’s face winced as he trudged toward the tunnel at the United Center.
His return from left ACL surgery, in just his second game back, was cut prematurely short.
Murray exited Friday’s second preseason game with 1:27 left in the second quarter due to left thigh soreness. Murray left and didn’t return. He didn’t even watch the second half from the visitor’s bench.
Murray’s health, far more than the lackluster defense, was the primary concern from Friday’s 131-113 loss to Chicago.
There was no guarantee Murray was going to play into the third quarter, anyway. Prior to the game, Nuggets coach Michael Malone said it would be contingent on how he felt at halftime.
“Jamal, I get a little bit more worrisome, with the knee,” Malone said before tip-off. “He’s fine, but I want to be really careful about how we do this.”
Because of that, Malone said he was limited at shootaround on Friday morning.
“Recovering from ACL, you don’t want to have multiple ramp-ups, play hard, cool down, ramp-up, so I’m trying to limit that,” Malone said.
The choice to play him in the second half was ultimately taken off the table.
Aside from Murray, here’s what else mattered in Denver’s second preseason game.
Michael Porter Jr. had no trouble finding space: Would Denver prefer MPJ to cook over Russ? Is this a safe space?
In 10 first-quarter minutes, Porter was 4-of-10 for nine points and four boards. He stepped into one deep 3-pointer off a look from Murray, ducked inside and served as a formidable post target on another play and got a healthy number of looks up. Lest one wondered how many shots Porter could find in a non-Jokic-led offense, we got an idea. (Nikola Jokic remained in Denver due to a right wrist sprain. An MRI showed “nothing sinister,” according to Malone.)
Even more encouraging, Malone offered this big-picture perspective on Porter’s status.
“Michael’s doing really well with his return-to-play and his back,” he said pre-game.
As with everything amid his return, Porter’s game was a mixed bag. There were encouraging defensive sequences where he offered good contests against smaller Bulls guards, but there were also bad ones, where he was beat back in transition or attacked inside.
His 15 first-half points and three 3-pointers slightly made up for the defensive lapses. Not that any amount of scoring will supersede defensive effort in Malone’s eyes. Porter finished the night with 20 points on 8-of-17 shooting, with four 3-pointers and seven rebounds.
What defense? The focus all week was on transition defense, communicating and putting forth effort to get back. Chicago’s 23 fastbreak points undermined all of this past week’s work, even if most of it came in the first half.
What’s more, Denver allowed 40 points in the paint in the first half alone – an egregious number for just two quarters. The Nuggets’ point of attack defense was non-existent and the Bulls lived in the paint. DeMar DeRozan, primarily guarded by Aaron Gordon, torched the defense for 22 points on 9-of-15 shooting.
While Jokic remained in Denver, there was veteran center DeAndre Jordan crashing the glass and setting up his teammates for easy baskets. Some sequences were seamless. Others were what you’d expect when you substitute a two-time MVP for a reserve center.
Jordan earned the start, while camp upstart Zeke Nnaji got significant run with the second unit.
Bones’ job: Like Porter, this preseason will have growing pains for Bones Hyland. There will be moments when the second unit’s offense is disjointed, and there will be other times when they can play at Hyland’s pace. Spacing, for a player of his speed, could be a constant issue.
In one moment, Hyland can be loose with the ball. At the next, he can slither into the paint and make a crafty finish inside. In the fourth quarter, Hyland flexed his notorious range with back-to-back 3-pointers.
He ended the night with 24 points on 4-of-8 3-point shooting in 22 minutes. That included six made free throws – a direct result of his slipperiness.