Nuggets’ Jamal Murray has turned corner amid long road back from ACL tear

Jamal Murray’s darkest days are over.

Those came early in his rehab, when he felt every stair he walked down and considered how much weight his surgically-repaired knee could bear.

But some 20 months after Murray initially tore his ACL, he’s onto a new stage of his return, a reward for those grueling early days.

“This is going to be the fun part, literally just experimenting (with) the knee,” Murray said late Thursday night after the Nuggets manhandled the Clippers, 122-91, mopping the floor so convincingly that neither Kawhi Leonard nor Paul George got off the bench for the second half.

Bobbing and weaving through the Clippers’ defense, Murray got the rout started. He hung 13 points in the first quarter, including three 3-pointers. His steely bounce was there as he probed the Clippers’ defense and then settled into his familiar step-back routine. In keeping with recent substitution patterns, Nuggets coach Michael Malone intended to yank Murray midway through the first quarter only to insert him back with the second unit several minutes later.

But Murray’s flame was too hot.

“I’m not putting the fire out,” Malone said.

If Murray had any apprehensions about his uneven rotation, the answer moving forward is simple: catch fire, and Malone won’t have a choice but to let him cook.

Within Murray’s newfound state, it wasn’t the 3-pointers that were the most encouraging, nor was it the quality defense he showed on Leonard and Reggie Jackson. It was his willingness to get airborne. Murray took a high screen from Nikola Jokic and rolled downhill, angling his attack at Clippers center Ivica Zubac. He drained the running floater, unconcerned with where he might land.

What looked like a mundane, routine shot was actually one that used to weigh him down. When asked to give an example of him experimenting with his knee, Murray described in great detail the painstaking path needed to get to a point of instinct and not trepidation. Murray explained experimenting with takeoffs, landings, absorbing contact, and hunting opposing big men like Zubac. He talked about attacking the rim, at the risk of getting hit, rather than settling for something outside the paint.

He used to think: “You see a lane, but as soon as it closes up, you don’t want to keep going.”

That apprehension, he said, is fading. Now, he doesn’t always have a plan when he wades into the forest of opposing big men, and yet that’s not enough to deter him. Murray’s, once again, OK with improvisation. The concern over reinjuring his knee, he said, is slowly creeping further toward the back of his mind.

“For the most part, I’m just playing out there,” Murray said.

In the meantime, Jokic is reluctantly authoring his campaign to be a three-time MVP, Aaron Gordon is bulldozing his way to a potential all-star appearance, and offseason additions Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown have both proven themselves invaluable. The Nuggets are so deep that they sat atop the West on Friday morning despite Murray’s growing pains and Michael Porter Jr. missing significant time due to a heel strain.

Thursday’s rout meant Murray only had to play 21 minutes, which placed him on track to play in his first back-to-back of the season Friday night. As Murray turned a significant mental corner, he checked one more box off of his to-do list.

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