Jamal Murray out? No problem — Reggie Jackson is here

In the absence of their championship starting point guard, the Denver Nuggets have been kept afloat by the hot hand of Reggie Jackson.

Denver Nuggets v Detroit Pistons
Denver Nuggets v Detroit Pistons / Nic Antaya/GettyImages
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The Denver Nuggets walked into the second leg of a back-to-back on the road against the Los Angeles Clippers, and to say it looked like a rough one on paper is an understatement — they came in having a 3-5 record in their last eight games, were still without Jamal Murray (missing his 11th straight game), and were also going to be without Nikola Jokic (back) and Aaron Gordon (heel). Yet, they were able to pull it off.

Moreover, they won a game where they got dominated in the third quarter (32-19 Clippers), eventually facing an 11-point deficit. They outscored LA 36-16 in the fourth quarter off the back of stellar play from Reggie Jackson, who had 13 points (5-of-7 shooting) and 5 assists in the period, and overall dominated with 35 points (15-of-19 from the field, 3-4 from 3).

For those that only tuned in to see the game from the perspective of the Clippers' Big Three, Jackson had an outlier performance that was a product of LA's continued struggles since the James Harden acquisition. These people are mistaken. Sure, he was hitting some very tough shots, but for the most part, he was able to carve the defense at will, collapsing the defense to find teammates or hit shots in the lane. Last night's game continued a trend for Jackson, who has filled in nicely for Murray in his month-long absence — in the 11 games he's been the starter, Reggie is averaging 15.6 points and 5.2 assists on 52.7 percent from the field (11.9 attempts) and 43.2 percent from 3.

Even before that, he was playing well, averaging 8.4 points, 3.4 assists and 1.3 steals on 44 percent from the field and 36 percent from 3 in seven games, all way better numbers than he had in the 16 regular season outings he had with Denver last season. With Denver needing someone from the bench to step up and fill that void of shooting, pick-and-roll handling and finishing off the bench that Bruce Brown left, Jackson has done just that. He went from being out of their postseason rotation (only played a total of 17 minutes in six out of the 20 games Denver played on their road to a championship) to being an important part of their title defense this season.

The stabilizing force of Reggie Jackson

The Nuggets came into this regular season in a different situation than they've entered past ones. Before, it was all about finding the right lineups in order to win a championship. They had a walking MVP candidate in Jokic and an All-Star guard in Murray, so it was just a matter of finding the right role players to accompany them on both ends. They briefly had it in 2021, when they had a seven-game winning streak after Gordon debuted for them and everyone was healthy. That is until Murray suffered a torn ACL in Golden State, which sidelined him for the remainder of that season and all of the following one.

Last season, they found both health (all their starters were healthy since day one and played at least 60 games) and the role players (notable offseason adds of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown and Christian Braun), and it paid off with a championship. They now know what it takes to win, so now it's a matter of staying healthy up until the postseason, and finding consistency from other role players.

Two big pieces — Brown and Jeff Green left in free agency, and Denver didn't fill those holes with new signings. It was up to Braun to elevate his play, Peyton Watson to show that the hype about him was real, Zeke Nnaji to elevate to a consistent rotation role, and on Jackson to be that veteran stabilizing force.

It's clear that this year he's had the ball in his hands more, and it has paid off for his play. His shot diet looks way different compared to last season: 62.7 percent of his attempts this season are 2-pointers, compared to it being 46.9 of his attempts with Denver last season, and 26.5 of that is from 3-10 feet (16.4 percent last season). He's been hitting most of the open looks he's had, but he's also been incredible one contested shots, shooting 54.4 percent on shots where the closest defender is 2-4 feet from him, which is eighth-best among all guards with at least 55 of those attempts.

The path here hasn't been a straight road

The ability to be a spark plug off the bench and a solid replacement for when his team's star guard is injured isn't anything new for Jackson, who fulfilled this exact role in his first seasons in the league with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He was then tasked with being the starter for a hopeful postseason team in the Detroit Pistons, and while he completed the objective (averaged 18.8 points and 6.2 assists in 79 games in 2015-16, where the Pistons made the playoffs), he struggled to stay healthy, and then when he was healthy he couldn't play at that high level. Struggle after struggle led him to lack of motivation, as he told Yahoo! Sports this summer:

"I didn't wanna do it no more. Couldn't find the reason to keep getting up and continuing to push and get better, something I'm passionate about and love to do. But I felt like my body kept failing me."

But his career was revived, as he has described it, with the Clippers. He was one of the postseason heroes in the 2021 playoffs, where his 17.8 points average on 48.4 shooting from the field and 40.8 from three helped the Clippers reach the Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history and two wins away from the Finals. In that series, in which the team played without Kawhi Leonard, he averaged 20.3 points on 45/36/80 shooting splits.

He stayed with Los Angeles and had another great season in 2021-22, but was traded at last season's deadline to the Charlotte Hornets for Mason Plumlee. After a buyout, he signed with the Nuggets, coming back to the state where he played high school ball. And while his team in a Nuggets jersey has been inconsistent, last night he got himself back into the mainstream map (ironically enough, against Russell Westbrook).

It isn't a resurrection at the level of the one he had with the Clippers. But, it's a strong outing that proves the Nuggets were right at trusting the players they already had to help them stay a contender. And, above all, an example that even older players can improve. With his play, Jackson has carved out a solid role for himself at 33 years old. And it's one that will keep him in the league for many more years.

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