SALT LAKE CITY – Jamal Murray’s storybook return was undone against the same team where his legend first grew: the Utah Jazz.
Playing in his first game since April 12, 2021, when he tore his ACL and underwent a grueling year-and-a-half rehab, Murray had bursts but the Nuggets’ defense was so underwhelming it didn’t matter here Wednesday night. The Jazz upset the Nuggets, 123-102, as Denver opened its season with a resounding dud.
“That team dominated us in every regard,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone, who hammered his team’s effort over the first two quarters.
“We didn’t play hard enough in that first half, and that was evident with the rebounding,” Malone added. Denver got outrebounded 43-35, while Utah thrived off 26 second-chance points.
Murray managed 12 points, including a handful of athletic plays that made you believe he wasn’t dwelling on his devastating injury.
“That was the first time I completed a whole game,” Murray said of his 26 minutes. “I can check that off my list.”
Two-time reigning MVP Nikola Jokic, who was mistakenly introduced to the crowd pre-game as Nikola Jokovic, poured in 27 on 12-of-17 shooting. And Michael Porter Jr., playing his first game since his third back surgery early last season, finished with 15 points and seven rebounds.
But amid their second-half comeback attempt, former Nugget Malik Beasley buried a crucial 3-pointer from the top of the arc to stretch Utah’s lead to 13. He followed his make with an extended shimmy, staring directly at Denver’s bench.
Utah’s bench outscored Denver’s 68-24, and the Jazz canned 16-of-38 3-pointers.
Denver will get another chance at their first win of the season Friday when they visit defending champion Golden State.
The Nuggets played the third quarter like they’d been embarrassed in the first two. Their closeouts were more urgent, and their energy ramped up in outscoring the Jazz 27-19. In particular, Porter’s defensive engagement soared after a lackluster first half. When he dove on the floor for a loose ball, Denver’s bench stood in unison to applaud the effort. The same thing happened when he nearly blocked Walker Kessler’s dunk attempt only a few feet in front of the visiting bench.
Even Murray got in on the act when he swiped a pass in traffic and kicked ahead for a transition 3-pointer by Porter. By the end of the spurt, Denver had the deficit down to 94-80.
The renewed effort came 24 minutes later than it should’ve.
Minutes into the second quarter, Murray appeared to injure his ankle, which briefly spooked Denver’s officials and forced him back to the locker room. He emerged shortly thereafter, but his reality was apparent: his return-to-play will be a process.
“Although he’s playing tonight, there’s still so much growth that remains there,” Malone said before the game of where Murray was at compared to where he’ll be in several months.
His return, coupled with Porter’s, gave Malone early optimism.
“You feel like you’re starting to get more whole,” Malone said.
Porter played in all five preseason games after catching a rhythm and telling his coach he didn’t want to rest.
“I feel pretty good,” Porter said at shootaround Wednesday morning. “… I’m comfortable where my body’s at physically.”
Everything that could’ve gone wrong for the Nuggets in the first half did so. The Jazz shredded Denver’s much-discussed defense to the tune of 58% shooting, including 11 for 22 from the 3-point line. If it wasn’t old friend Beasley burying a 3-pointer, then it was former Nuggets forward Jarred Vanderbilt obliterating the Nuggets on the boards. Vanderbilt had 12 rebounds in 12 minutes in the first half, highlighting a glaring lack of commitment and toughness inside from Denver.
Utah pounded Denver for an astounding 75-53 lead at the break. Jazz faithful erupted on numerous occasions as its team, decimated by offseason trades, seized momentum.
Aaron Gordon, who opened the season with a reverse dunk, had a team-high 16 points at the half. Jokic had 14 and four assists. But Utah’s blistering 3-point shooting – some the result of lackadaisical closeouts – exposed a defense that had numerous gaps to address.