Murray, Porter Jr. tantalize in impressive preseason return for Nuggets
It looked like they never missed a beat.
They had, of course; Michael Porter Jr. hadn’t played an NBA basketball game for the Denver Nuggets in 331 days after an injury that necessitated the third back surgery of his still-young career, and teammate Jamal Murray hadn’t played in an even more interminable 539 following an ACL tear. Yet here they both were, together on the court at Ball Arena in Denver, looking amazingly like their old selves while playing in the Nuggets’ 112-101, preseason-opening loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
For the Nuggets, the final score didn’t matter, of course, and even the things that did — the team debuts of starting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, likely sixth man Bruce Brown, veteran backup center DeAndre Jordan, well-traveled point guard Ish Smith, and first-round rookies Christian Braun and Peyton Watson, for example — were all a distant second to the status of the now-healthy duo that could potentially change the Nuggets from a mid-seed playoff team into one of the league’s best.
The Thunder aren’t among the league’s best, and preseason basketball is a league removed from the real McCoy, but certainly, the Nuggets expected to see more rust from Murray and Porter Jr. than they did. Porter started off hotter, as the 24-year-old forward took to his new offensive role in the corners as part of head coach Michael Malone’s offense, and his picturesque jump shot did not disappoint as he hit on three of his first four shots for six first-quarter points. Murray didn’t start as well, missing his first two shots, but the second quarter was his, as he scored 10 points while hitting 4-of-5 from the field, including a buzzer-beating, fadeaway shot off a drive to end the first half.
The Nuggets starting five — Murray, Porter Jr., Caldwell-Pope, Aaron Gordon and back-to-back, reigning MVP Nikola Jokic — sat out the second half, but thanks to Murray’s heroics, they went back to the locker room at halftime, up 52-51. The Nuggets’ bench handled things the rest of the way, with 2020 first-rounder Zeke Nnaji looking ready to take the next step in his career, leading the team with 15 points on 6-for-11 shooting, punctuated by more than one two-handed jams.
Nnaji, who had his fourth-year option picked up by the team earlier on Monday, also had six rebounds in only 17 minutes of play. Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland, last year’s first-round selection and notable ball of positive energy, struggled in his 14 minutes, earning some of Malone’s postgame ire for his perceived effort level. Nevertheless, and rightly so, the Nuggets are delighted with Hyland’s immediate impact at the NBA level, and the team picked up his third-year option on Monday, as well. Both contracts were handed out by new general manager Calvin Booth, who earned a multi-year extension of his own on Sunday.
Clearly, given all the signings, the Nuggets have a plan that they’re confident in. But to accomplish it, they’ll need Murray and Porter Jr. to look like the players they were before their injuries. The pair passed their first test. Porter Jr. finished the game with 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting (including 2-of-4 from three-point range) while collecting a single rebound and a single assist. The Nuggets know they’ll need more from Porter than just shooting, but for now, this role allows him to limit contact and potential wear and tear on his back.
“Injuries — it just takes time, I would say, to have joy in the game again, (with) no soreness or anything,” Porter said at last week’s media day. “It’s good to be on the other side of it. I’m here now, and I don’t have any limitations. I’m excited.”
Both Porter and Murray will be taken slowly as the season goes along, even if both players are understandably excited to be back on the court. Murray finished with those 10 first-half points to go along with a pair of assists and a pair of rebounds, while shooting 4-of-7 from the field, including 2-of-3 from deep.
“It’s a checkmark for sure. It’s one of those mental checks,” Murray said after the game. “Got my feel; felt the crowd. Felt the team; the ball movement, moving on the floor. It’s different than practice — way different. It was just a lot of fun.”
Malone was unhappy after the game, noting that “we didn’t get better” after 12 first-half turnovers (and 17 overall) and a poor shooting night in which the team only put the ball in the basket at a paltry 41.1 percent clip. But while that work continues, Monday night was about a bigger picture — the one that the Nuggets and their fans have been hoping for over the better part of two years — the successful returns of the team’s No. 2 and No. 3 scorers in the last full season that Murray and Porter Jr. shared the floor with the Jokic. Monday night was only a first step — Porter Jr., has been especially fragile over the years, Murray’s still going to have to overcome the fatigue that players returning from ACL injuries usually feel in their knees, and it’s entirely possible that neither plays more than 65 games this season — but both men passed the test with flying colors. The Nuggets’ next one comes on Friday in Chicago.