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With 17 games left in their regular season, the Denver Nuggets should have enough time to set a new course without guard Jamal Murray for what they hope is another extended playoff push.

The Nuggets began that process in earnest Wednesday with a 123-106 home victory over the Miami Heat in their first game without Murray, who tore his left ACL in the latter stages of a loss to the Golden State Warriors Monday. Murray will miss the rest of the season, cutting short what had been a career-best statistical campaign and putting a dent in the Nuggets’ playoff fortunes.

And Denver, set to face the Houston Rockets on the road Friday, had legitimate championship hopes based a trio of factors: the surprising run to the Western Conference Finals last season; the improved play of late, with the Nuggets winning eight consecutive games prior to back-to-back losses against the Boston Celtics and Warriors; and the trade deadline acquisition of forward Aaron Gordon from the Orlando Magic, a move that strengthened their front court.

But with Murray sidelined, the Nuggets needed an injection of positive vibes. The road ahead without their second-leading scorer will be bumpier without Murray, but the Nuggets took that first step with a vigor that set the right tone for what will be a challenging closing stretch.

“I just felt like there was joy in how we played,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “I kind of looked like they were having fun and that was one of my challenges to our guys. Even before Jamal had gone down with that injury I felt like there was not a lot of joy in Mudville. And you can’t play like that, you can’t coach like that. I felt like we got back to playing our brand of basketball: unselfish [and] playing for each other.”

Without Murray, the Nuggets will continue to lean on center and league MVP candidate Nikola Jokic, who notched his 15th double-double on the season, while expecting greater production from forward Michael Porter Jr., who had 25 points and 10 rebounds against the Heat. Additionally, the guard rotation of Monte Morris, PJ Dozier and Facu Campazzo will be tasked to embrace the “next man up” mentality and offset some of what will be lost with Murray sidelined.

The Nuggets checked all of those boxes against Miami. They will need to do so again on Friday.

The Rockets continued their spiral toward contention for the worst record in the NBA. After splitting four games following a franchise-record 20-game losing skid, Houston has dropped four consecutive games and 9 of 10 following a 132-124 loss to the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday.

Houston is ranked 29th in defensive efficiency over the past 10 games. The Rockets surrendered 75 first-half points to the Pacers before making what has become for them a patented second-half run, only to again fall short. The lax early effort has resulted in dismay.

“The difference between the beginning of the game and the third quarter for the last however many games, it’s not even close,” Rockets coach Stephen Silas said. “You can see it, I can see it, everybody that watches the game can see it. It’s not good.”

–Field Level Media