Jamal Murray overcame some early jitters to have 24 points and eight assists in his first playoff game since the 2020 NBA bubble as the top-seeded Denver Nuggets routed the Minnesota Timberwolves 109-80 Sunday night.
“Murray was Murray," Wolves point guard Chris Conley said. "He’s one of the better scorers, playmakers, from our position.”
Michael Porter Jr., who scored 18 points in his first playoff game since missing last year's run with a bad back, said Murray used his time off after blowing out his left knee in 2021 to improve his basketball IQ.
“I told him the other day I feel like he's better now than before the injury,” Porter said. “I know he probably doesn't feel it, but just his overall game, his awareness, he had like a year off where he had to just watch.”
Porter scored 18 points and Nikola Jokic added 13 points, 14 rebounds and a half dozen assists in 28 minutes as Denver snapped a five-game skid in playoff openers — and became the only higher seed to win on its homecourt Sunday.
Both Porter and Murray started off slow offensively, so they turned up their defense, diving for loose balls and crashing the glass until they found their shooting touch.
“That was the game right there,” Murray said. “It wasn't even offense. I think Mike and I struggled early and we were still playing defense. We were running the floor playing defense, boxing out, playing physical. Everybody made an impact.”
Anthony Edwards led Minnesota with 18 points. Karl-Anthony Towns, who was rounding into form this month after missing 52 games with a bad calf, missed 10 of his first 12 shots and finished with 11 points.
“It’s the NBA. It’s not forgiving. Just things happen," Towns said. "They did a great job, give them credit. They had a long week preparing for us and they got ready and you could tell on the court they knew our plays and knew what they’re doing. So we’ve just got to come back ready for Game 2. It’s a series — just move on, flush it and get ready.”
Minnesota coach Chris Finch lamented Denver's tougher physicality and better control.
“Way more physical than we were,” he said. "They played with more speed, more force, they kicked our butts in every category that you possibly can imagine.”
Jokic said during the Nuggets' week off that he was eager to see how they'd do do with Murray and Porter back in the lineup with him after injuries and surgeries waylaid Denver's Big Three each of the last two postseasons.
The answer was emphatic: the trio combined for 55 points, 33 rebounds and 16 assists — with just two combined turnovers — as all five of Denver's starters scored in double figures as did reserve Bruce Brown, who chipped in 14.
The Nuggets were the only one of four home teams to win Sunday as the Bucks, Grizzlies and Suns all surrendered homecourt advantage to lower seeds in the first round.
The opener marked Murray's first playoff appearance since his breakout performance in the 2020 NBA bubble, when he twice put up 50 points on the Jazz in helping the Nuggets reach the Western Conference Finals where they lost to LeBron James and the Lakers. Murray tore his left ACL eight months later and missed the Nuggets' last two playoff runs.
“It is kind of wild to think it’s been that long," Denver coach Michael Malone said before tip-off. “I’m just so happy for him, proud of him. It has not been an easy journey for him, but I think this year, we’ve seen Jamal have moments where that’s the Jamal Murray that we all love and remember.”
The Timberwolves were without starting forward Jaden McDaniels, their best perimeter defender, who broke his right hand punching a wall in Minnesota's final regular season game.
Towns promised things would be different in Game 2.
“I don’t think this team has many nights like this,” he said of the Wolves, who hadn't been held to 80 or fewer points since Nov. 19, 2016.
Malone said before tip-off he expected some chippiness in the series: “I don't mind spicy. This is the playoffs. This isn't like regular season games.”
He got just that in the third quarter when rookie Christian Braun got into a tussle with Kyle Anderson after Anderson's flagrant foul.
Timberwolves: Minnesota surrendered the first eight points of the game and the first nine points after halftime. The Wolves fought back to take a 17-16 lead in the first quarter but there was no similar comeback in the third.
Nuggets: Jokic re-entered the game with 7:46 remaining and the Nuggets ahead by 30. He quickly picked up his fifth and sixth fouls, including a flagrant on Edwards. Asked on TNT afterward why he went back into the game, Jokic said, “I think that is not a question for me. ... I don't have a problem to play in garbage time or whatever.”
Game 2 is Wednesday night in Denver.