Surviving Jamal Murray’s injury starts with Reggie Jackson’s scoring resurgence

Growing up in a military family, Reggie Jackson moved around enough to never remain with one basketball program too long. He was constantly adapting to new systems, new styles, new teammates.

“Everything didn’t always revolve around me,” he said.

Jackson attributes his general plug-and-play comfort level to that upbringing. But the self-aware Nuggets point guard also understands he can’t credit himself too much for the seamless dependability with which he has replaced an injured Jamal Murray so far.

Late in a November litmus test for the defending NBA champions, the Nuggets turned to the two-man game to bail them out: “Big Government” Jackson and Nikola Jokic.

“I think he’s just that damn good that he’s making me look like I know what I’m doing out there with the team,” Jackson said when asked how he has built chemistry with Jokic.

Murray is estimated to be out at least three weeks with a right hamstring strain, sources told The Denver Post, though the timeline is fluid. The top priority is exercising caution to prevent the injury from lingering deeper into the season. If the Nuggets (8-1) hope to survive Murray’s absence and remain a juggernaut in the Western Conference, their success must start with Jackson, the 33-year-old who has been their first player off the bench this season and is now replacing Murray in the starting lineup.

Equally relevant in the big picture: These increased minutes will be helpful in revealing whether Jackson, at his current age, possesses the consistency in his game to remain a trusted sixth man once the playoffs roll around. Last season, he was seized off the buyout market, then became a frequent DNP (coach’s decision) during the Nuggets’ championship run. Denver stuck to eight players as religiously as possible. The Colorado native Jackson is now positioned to be one of those eight a year later.

“You always have to find chemistry with everybody,” he said. “All the stars that you play with. You have to figure out what they’re doing. Last year, it took me a little longer to figure out, and I found myself falling out of the lineup.”

After a pause, Jackson smirked and added: “Definitely am not salty about that. Got a championship out of it.”

Even before Murray’s injury, Jackson was getting considerable run with Denver’s other four starters this season. Michael Malone’s first substitution early on was Jackson for Murray with a few minutes remaining in the first quarter. It was a somewhat unexpected development considering the organization entered the season viewing Christian Braun as its sixth man, but also one that made sense in the context of Malone’s central philosophy that either Jokic or Murray should be on the floor at all times.

So Jackson wasn’t being thrown into a completely foreign situation when he was asked this week to step up as Denver’s temporary starting point guard. Entering Friday’s slate of games, the lineup of Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon and Jokic was the only five-man lineup in the NBA that had appeared in nine games. The quintet logged 76 minutes together across those first nine contests, making it a top-15 highest-usage lineup in the league.

Its offensive rating: 128.3 points per 100 possessions.

Its defensive rating: 82.8 points allowed per 100 possessions.

That amounted to the highest net rating in the NBA (45.5) for any five-man lineup as of Friday (minimum 40 minutes played together). The next-closest: Boston’s new-look starting five (39 net rating in 87 minutes) and Houston’s starting five (20.9 in 120 minutes).

How about two-man lineups? As of Friday, the top three two-man combinations in the league with a minimum of 100 shared minutes were Jackson and Jokic (33.5 net rating), Jackson and Caldwell-Pope (32.7) and Jackson and Gordon (32.7).

Which brings back the key component of the Nuggets’ next three weeks: Jackson, by trade a one-on-one scoring point guard, learning to play with Jokic.

“You’re usually the quarterback when you’re a point guard of the offense, and you see directly everything in front of you, you kind of make decisions and you have to trust your instincts, have to put (teammates) in great decisions,” Jackson said. “But now (I’m) understanding that I’m more like a receiver, especially when you play with Nikola, trying to understand what he sees. … There’s not a pass that he can’t make. There’s not a pass that he won’t try to make. And he’s always trying to make the right play. So just trying to make sure I’m in the right place at the right time.”

Reggie Jackson (7) of the Denver Nuggets scores against the Golden State Warriors during the fourth quarter of the Nuggets’ 108-105 win at Ball Arena in Denver on Wednesday, November 8, 2023. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

Their chemistry started to crystalize in the Golden State game Wednesday. After leading 101-98 with 2:30 remaining, the Nuggets scored only two more baskets from the field the rest of the game. Both were Jackson layups out of the two-man game with Jokic.

After Jackson contested an Andrew Wiggins 3-point attempt that would have tied the game at 101, the rebound went to Jokic, who brought the ball up with Kevon Looney guarding him. Jackson, defended by Steph Curry, ball-screened for Jokic, causing Curry to switch and Looney to drop into coverage. Jokic dished off to Jackson, and he had an easy path to the cup for a five-point lead.

Then a minute later, nursing a 103-102 lead, Jokic posted up Looney on the right side while Denver’s other three players cleared out to the opposite corner. When Jackson fed Jokic, Klay Thompson (who had been guarding Jackson) motioned to trap Jokic with the ball. Jackson timed his cut to perfection and scored another easy layup on the give-and-go. With 1:09 left, that and a handful of foul shots were enough to secure the win.

“(Jokic) told me a few plays before, he’s like, ‘You’re gonna be open on this play that we drew up out of a time out.’ I didn’t get it, but then he just kept telling me, like, ‘Be ready,’” Jackson said. “By the time he hit me with the ball, it was funny because I’m looking for the weak side (help). I’m looking for somebody to come help, and I don’t think they wanted to leave A.G. Of course, Mike was hot. We all know what Pope can do. He can get going at any given moment. I found myself the recipient of just probably … one of the easiest baskets I’ve ever had in my career. So it was funny, and then it happened again.”

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Jackson was learning in real time what happens when a point guard commits to being Jokic’s receiver instead of his quarterback. He finished with 20 points, six assists and no turnovers. In his three games this season with 16 or more points, Jackson has only turned the ball over once.

If he clicks with Jokic consistently for the duration of Murray’s injury, the Nuggets will be deeper at point guard than they thought they were three weeks ago.

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