I have used Sports Illustrated as my personal Nuggets blog for nearly a year now. Before this season, I picked Denver as my surprise team in the West, predicting a Conference finals berth. (I then doubled down and picked them to make the Finals.) I also predicted Jamal Murray would win Most Improved Player—floating out that the Nugs may have the third-best backcourt in the conference by season’s end. I feel much better about all these absurd prognostications after Monday, when Murray went off for 48 points in a thrilling 115–107 win for #NuggetsHive over the Celtics.
The game could serve as a bit of an arrival for Murray—the Canadian everyone wanted Andrew Wiggins to be—whose play has actually been a little up and down to start the season. Entering Monday, Murray had scored at least 20 points in only three games, while scoring 10 or less in three others. That’s not necessarily a full indictment on Murray, who, despite having the ball in his hands quite often, can sometimes play third fiddle to Gary Harris and Nikola Jokic. What the explosion against the Celtics showed is how much a fully firing Murray can raise Denver’s ceiling.
Offense has never been an issue for the Nuggets, but their attack is almost always more egalitarian than star focused. That starts with Jokic, who genuinely seems to prefer passing to shooting. It’s a bit of a cliché that you need a go-to scorer at the end of games ... but it really does help to have a player like Murray, who combines an ability to score with a fearlessness in attacking relentlessly. Murray went toe-to-toe with Kyrie Irving on Monday, and Boston couldn’t do anything to stop him even when it was clear he was hunting for shots. Jokic post-ups don’t always provide the crispest offense when games get tight, so if Murray’s confidence grows after his 48-point outburst, it could certainly pay dividends down the line. If teams park their best perimeter defender on Harris, then Murray has to go to work (and vice versa.)
Of course, you can also choose not to read too heavily into Murray’s incredible game. You can also enjoy it for what it was—an exciting young player going all the way off for a team on the rise. There’s a joy in Murray’s game. He plays possessions with a sense of something close to exasperation—his jersey is always flapping around, his energy is always spent and he rarely slows down. His flair for the dramatic (which can be both good and bad) is a big part of what makes the Nuggets so incredibly entertaining, and he gives you a reason to tune in almost every night.
Here’s something you can definitely take away from Monday’s game, whether you’re a Murray believer or not: The Nuggets are going to be a tough out for every team this season. Denver is 9–1, with wins over the Warriors, Celtics and Jazz in the books. The way Murray balled Monday was a crystallizing moment for both fans of the team and Denver’s front office. The Nuggets don’t only have to be fun; they can also be a star-driven team that can compete with the league’s very best. Of course, they can also be fun and great, and we are seeing that version of the Nugs more often than ever before at the start of this year. If you’re not ready to jump on the bandwagon, that’s what you’re missing out on.