Jamal Murray got his swagger back.
There have been fits and starts for nearly a quarter of the season, but his familiar bounce was back.
Behind a season-high 31 points, Murray bewildered Houston’s defense en route to a 129-113 Nuggets home win Monday night. His efficiency — 11 for 17 from the field — made it that much more satisfying.
“I made the shots that I normally make,” Murray said.
Added Nuggets coach Michael Malone: “I’m happy for him. … It’s been a long journey for that kid.”
His counterpart, Nikola Jokic, was equally as special, but he didn’t have to battle an 18-month road to recovery like Murray did before getting to savor his success again. Jokic finished with 32 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists, overwhelming the Rockets’ interior for Denver’s third consecutive win. The Nuggets (13-7) will host the Rockets again on Wednesday.
Even without Michael Porter Jr. (heel), Bones Hyland (non-COVID illness) and Jeff Green (knee), Denver withstood Houston’s barrage of 16 3-pointers.
“Michael will come back when he’s ready,” Malone said without offering a timeline.
Thanks to Denver’s two franchise pillars, they didn’t need him Monday night. A fantastic night from Ish Smith — 10 points, eight assists — off the bench complemented the effort.
It took until the third quarter, but the Nuggets finally got separation from the Rockets. At the heart of it, of course, was Jokic and Murray. They played their version of anything you can do, I can do better, trading off 3-pointers and scoop finishes to help seize momentum.
Murray found his trademark bounce after canning a 3-pointer from the wing, and Jokic got so comfortable he started improvising even more than he usually does. Amid a 16-point quarter, Jokic baked in a Sombor Shuffle and a couple of deep jumpers. The exclamation point came when Zeke Nnaji drained a 3-pointer to beat the buzzer. With that shot the Nuggets held a 106-91 lead going into the fourth.
Malone said the priority entering Monday’s game was limiting Houston’s second-chance opportunities — an area they’ve dominated over the past five games.
“It was emphasized yesterday, this morning,” he said in the pre-game. “ … They are crashing from everywhere.”
For the most part, that directive was met in the first half. It was everything else defensively where the Nuggets fell apart. Houston dropped 12 3-pointers over the first two quarters, eliciting all manner of reactions from Denver’s head coach. On one, Malone simply crumpled up the stats sheet in his hand and whipped it beneath his chair in frustration.
When he spoke pre-game about how the game had changed over the last decade, he unwittingly said how common it was for teams to give up at least 80 points in a half. Malone nearly spoke it into existence.
The lackluster defense, despite an encouraging first half from Jokic and Murray, was how the Nuggets held only a 70-68 lead going into the break.
Murray played perhaps his best offensive half since returning from ACL surgery by hanging 22 points on 9-for-11 shooting. He connected from outside and worked his deadly inside game to success.
As he always does, Jokic manipulated everything Houston concocted. His touch passes opened up 3-point looks, and his vision picked apart the Rockets’ defense down low.