How will Nikola Jokić, Nuggets weather Jamal Murray’s injury absence?

DENVER — Nikola Jokić gave an enlightening, unique and overall jovial postgame media session in the wake of Monday night’s 134-116 win over the New Orleans Pelicans. It consisted of the Denver Nuggets star going to the podium, declaring that he knew which questions were coming and then answering said questions before they were asked.

At the start of a season, where Denver found itself in the midst of an arduous six games in nine nights stretch, Jokić provided some comic relief in the face of adversity. But at the end of it all, the adversity still exists, and will for the near future.

That hardship? Nuggets star guard Jamal Murray injured his hamstring against the Chicago Bulls on Saturday and will miss an extended period. As Denver heads into Wednesday’s showdown with the Golden State Warriors at Ball Arena, it will do so without its second-best player, who is one of the elite shotmakers and point guards in the league. The Nuggets will face the Warriors with the specter of Murray being out of action not for days, but weeks.

That’s when Jokić, and the questions, took a more serious turn. If nothing else, Jokić knows how important his pick-and-roll partner is to the overall health of the roster, and that Murray’s absence has the chance to have a rippling effect through the team.

“If we miss a guy, we have guys that can step in and get the job done,” Jokić said. “And our system is good because everyone that we put on the court can play. Jamal is so important to us. He was a huge part in us winning a championship. He is someone who can go and get 30 points. We have guys who can step up. Maybe they won’t get 30, but they can fill spots in other ways.”

So what does this mean for Denver?

Murray’s injury threatens to partially derail the best start in the NBA – at 7-1, the Nuggets have the league’s best record. They have been dominant on most nights, alarmingly consistent and often spectacular. They are unbeaten at home, and would like to make a statement by playing well against a Golden State team that looks to be completely different than last year’s team, which lost in the second round.

On Monday, Denver cooked New Orleans in the second half, but that masked the fact that the Nuggets were down 20 in the first half. They looked listless and rudderless. They weren’t defending well. Point guard Collin Gillespie, who is now in the rotation with Murray down, played a terrific second half, but struggled in the first half. The Nuggets looked like a team adjusting without their point guard.

In truth, we have yet to see a specific issue without Murray, but we could on Wednesday. In clutch minutes, the Nuggets go to the Jokić-Murray two-man game on nearly every possession that matters in a game’s last five minutes because it’s proven to be almost impossible to defend.

Denver has played exactly one close game this season, a 108-104 win at the Memphis Grizzlies on Oct. 27. Five of their other six victories have been by double-digits, and the sixth, a 110-102 win over the Utah Jazz, was basically a “big brother holding his little brother at bay” type of victory that wasn’t as close as the score would suggest. Without Murray on Monday, the Nuggets pulled away because they defended in the second half at an elite level and because Jokić hit his gear of dominance that no other player in the NBA currently has.

Gillespie will get the first crack at Murray’s minutes, and with Murray out, rookie first-round pick Julian Strawther becomes more important to the second unit because of his ability to stretch the floor and make shots. That’s potentially where Murray’s absence will be felt the most. He balanced the team by running the second unit, and his stability and playmaking allow the Nuggets to rest Jokić and not have to worry about the other team going on a huge run. Without that luxury, those second-unit minutes become more of a crapshoot, which makes Strawther more important to the overall rotation than he has been to this point.



Can Nuggets rookie Julian Strawther shoot his way into Denver’s rotation?

So, those are the changes you are most likely to see last over the course of games.

Yet, if you look a little deeper, the Nuggets don’t want Jokić to have to hit fifth gear in order to beat the New Orleans Pelicans on a random Monday night in early November. Yes, Strawther scored a career-high 21 points, and Michael Porter Jr. continued his excellent play of late. And, yes, Denver’s depth and second unit proved to be a major asset, particularly in the second half.

But, Jokić, in the midst of scoring 35 points, grabbing 14 rebounds and handing out 12 assists, exerted himself in ways that he hasn’t all season. His 24 shots from the field were a season-high. Because Gillespie is more of a spot-up shooter rather than a point guard who can run the offense, Jokić spent more time operating from the high post, directing teammates and getting the ball to the right people in the right spots.

Denver head coach Michael Malone saw this and tweaked the rotation in the second half, keeping starting point guard Reggie Jackson on the floor with Jokić for a longer stint in order to ease some of the big man’s playmaking duties. When Gillespie played in the second half, Aaron Gordon, a good playmaker in his own right, was on the floor with him. If the Nuggets lose Murray for the better part of a month, Jokić’s usage will be an important thing to watch, even when he isn’t shooting the ball.

If the Nuggets are going to win another title, Jokić has to be fresh heading into the playoffs. The last thing Denver’s coaching staff and front office want is to overexert their superstar in order to compensate for losing Murray.

“It’s going to have to be by committee, it can’t be just one guy,” Malone said. “You have Reggie, you have Collin, you have (rookie) Jalen (Pickett). They are all point guards by definition so obviously you start there. But we have a lot of other guys who have the ability to fill the position, too.

“Collin has worked hard, he has the confidence of his teammates and he has the ability to run the team. He makes open shots, and he competes on defense. Now, with Jamal being out for the foreseeable future, we’re going to have to have somebody step up and fill that void.”

(Photo of Nikola Jokić: AAron Ontiveroz / The Denver Post)

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