Late Monday night, Jamal Murray found himself in a forest of Timberwolves eyeing his every move.
Several minutes into the fourth quarter of Denver’s loss at Minnesota, Murray was deep in the paint as three defenders swarmed around him. He faked a pass to Vlatko Cancar at the top of the arc, then feigned a pass to Bruce Brown on the wing. As Bones Hyland seeped out of the morass, leaking out to the corner for what would’ve been an open 3-pointer, Murray spotted him but opted to take the contested turnaround jumper himself.
The shot bricked, and despite a valiant effort from the Nuggets’ starters a few minutes later, they never could quite overcome Minnesota’s urgency.
Murray finished with 14 points on 6-of-12 shooting, with four assists and two turnovers. It was a decent finish considering he’d scored zero points on just two attempts in 18 minutes in the first half but also underwhelming production for a guy who didn’t play the night before against Boston while resting his surgically-repaired knee.
On the plane ride home, after the Timberwolves had salted away a 124-111 win over the Nuggets, Murray sat next to coach Michael Malone.
“I feel for Jamal right now,” Malone said after Wednesday’s practice, acknowledging how much they’ve asked of him.
In an effort to juice Denver’s inconsistent second unit, while also ensuring that either Nikola Jokic or Murray is on the floor at all times, Malone’s taken to staggering his point guard with the reserves. Functionally, Murray’s checked out at the six-minute mark of the first, only to return several minutes later with a whole new cast of teammates. He’ll then stay in with the bench unit to start the next quarter, rest a few minutes, and then close the half with the starters.
If Malone hasn’t seen how demanding that is on Murray’s rhythm — which you can almost guarantee he has — then perhaps Murray told it to him on the snowy flight home from Minneapolis. His scoring has fluctuated significantly over the past eight games, with a handful of 25-plus point games and two single-digit nights.
When playing with the starters, there’s an established hierarchy as the offense flows through Jokic. Alongside the reserves, Murray’s job is to be a “focal point,” according to Malone. That’s a challenge considering both he and Hyland need the ball in their hands to be effective. At minimum, it’s been a point of discussion with Murray, and at most, it’s been a point of frustration for him, though he hasn’t said it publicly.
Malone admitted there have been growing pains between Murray and Hyland, but that doesn’t mean the experiment has been a failure. Two dynamic shot-creators have the potential to stress a defense, particularly a second-unit one.
“I think Jamal and Bones together has the makings of something effective,” Malone said.
That pairing, Malone said, should alleviate scoring droughts among the reserves for the time being. He reserved the right to stagger Michael Porter Jr., which they had been doing prior to making the switch to Murray.
But, as with all deep teams, one decision trickles down to another. When Murray takes the court alongside Hyland and utility man Bruce Brown, it leaves two frontcourt spots for Cancar, Zeke Nnaji, DeAndre Jordan and, when healthy, Jeff Green. Rather than play small, the odd-man out has been Christian Braun, the promising rookie whose poised defense is exactly what Malone prioritizes.
“The biggest challenge … Christian Braun’s gotta play,” Malone said. “I want to get Christian in the game, I really do.”
Malone knows better than anyone. It’s not easy to feed that many hungry mouths, and it won’t get easier as the playoffs approach. Despite the critical self-audit, Denver still finds itself atop the West heading into Thursday’s battle against the Clippers.
Gordon’s shoulder: Aaron Gordon missed both games in Sacramento in late December with a shoulder strain that could still be hampering him. “There’s definitely something there,” Malone said, but added it wasn’t prohibiting Gordon.
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