LOS ANGELES — If given the chance, Jamal Murray said he’d do it differently the second time around.
With 8:20 left in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 121-110 loss to the Lakers, the Nuggets called a timeout, trailing 104-95, and tried to stem Los Angeles’ momentum.
At that point, Murray had played 25:57, which amounted to his original minute restriction when the Nuggets opened the season less than two weeks ago at Utah. He’s since topped out at 28 minutes, twice, but wary of overextending Murray amid his still-nascent comeback from ACL surgery, Nuggets coach Michael Malone got skittish.
“I knew I definitely didn’t want him at 34 minutes,” Malone said. “… The Catch-22 was, ‘Do I leave him in and close with somebody else, or do I get him out for a few minutes and get him back in?’”
Murray said his coach posed the question to him. Murray opted to sit, and even though he returned to the game less than three minutes later, the Nuggets had lost precious time in their comeback attempt.
“If we could go back, we’d probably try to do it the other way around,” Murray said from the visitor’s locker room in Los Angeles after the Nuggets had fallen to 4-3.
Murray finished with 21 points on 9-on-21 shooting, including 3-of-7 from the 3-point line. His season-high 32 minutes scratched the ceiling of his minutes restriction, and his five assists and four rebounds were an added jolt after backup point guard Bones Hyland was a late scratch due to a hip strain. In the second half, in particular, Murray caught his rhythm.
He began with a step-back 3-pointer from the corner, got lucky with another last-ditch 3-pointer and then turned on another gear, stopping and starting to create space with Patrick Beverley draped on him. Murray’s hesitation pull-up with 7:40 left in the third quarter was vintage Blue Arrow.
When he hit another swerving pull-up two minutes into the fourth to force a Lakers timeout, Murray jogged back to the Nuggets’ bench shaking his head, as if he knew they couldn’t stop him.
Murray scored 15 points with three 3-pointers in the second half.
While he navigates his own hurdles back to normalcy, Murray said he’s still trying to find his lane within Denver’s offense. The Nuggets, as constructed, look a lot different than the last time he was a fixture of their operation.
“I felt OK tonight,” he said, downplaying his best game since returning.
But aside from his production, there was another indication that Murray was starting to feel like himself. In the postgame locker, Murray was displeased with his efficiency – 21 points on 21 shots – and more telling, he was frustrated that the Nuggets had let a winnable game slip away.
When he returned for the first time in Utah to open the season, not even a humbling loss to the Jazz could erase Murray’s smile. But on Sunday night, he was irritated, annoyed that the Lakers earned their first win against the Nuggets.
“We lost,” he said when asked about his personal gains.
Reminded of his mindset on opening night, Murray acknowledged that he was beyond simply being content just to be playing again.
“It’s back to work mentality,” he said. “It’s just frustrating – you find a groove but you still lose. That just means you can do a whole lot better.”
And of Denver’s fourth-quarter decision, one that hampered its chances of keeping the Lakers winless?
“I know as the season goes on, we won’t have that problem,” he said.