Three things to know: Nuggets’ title dreams fade with Jamal Murray’s ACL injury

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The NBA season is deep into its second half, and we will be here each weekday with the NBC Sports daily roundup Three Things to Know — everything you might have missed in the Association, every key moment from the night before in one place.

1) Injuries suck: Nuggets’ title chances are torn up with Jamal Murray‘s ACL

From the moment they acquired Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline, the Denver Nuggets looked every bit the contender. It wasn’t just that they won eight in a row, it’s how the pieces all fit together — Nikola Jokic playing at an MVP level as the fulcrum of the offense, Jamal Murray running a two-man game with him and capable of destroying defenses, and a supporting cast where everyone could space the floor with shooting, cut and move off the ball, and pass. Denver had the athleticism and defensive versatility to match up with the big guns in Los Angeles.

Then on Monday night, Murray drove for a layup in the final minute of the game, and as he took off of his left leg something went wrong, he was instantly on the ground in pain. Tuesday, we learned Murray tore his ACL.

Injuries suck.

Denver’s title chances this season were torn up with that ACL. This is still a good team with Monte Morris and Facundo Campazzo as solid rotation players filling in for Murray, they make the Nuggets a tough out. But Denver lost its second-best player and a guy who showed in the bubble he could take over playoff games and drop 40+ on a good team if it was called for to win. Denver just lost one of its big threats, and they are not the same.

The real punch to the gut in the Rockies is this may doom the Nuggets next season as well.

Murray is known for his drive and work ethic. He likely physically can return to the court at some point later next season — when the NBA is back on its traditional October-to-June schedule — but players with torn ACLs often say it takes up to 18 months to get the comfort level, trust of their body, and athleticism all the way back. After next season the Nuggets front office will need to decide whether to pay up and keep Gordon, who will be a free agent (and he has to decide if he wants to stay), and Michael Porter Jr.‘s extension will be up. The Nuggets will be pushing the luxury tax and have hard decisions to make in the summer of 2022, and even then they still may not know just how good this roster can be.

This season the West remains wide open. If the Lakers get Anthony Davis and LeBron James back and fully healthy — still a big “if” — they are the team to beat, but the Jazz and Clippers look like threats. Phoenix has a lot to prove, but Chris Paul and company have been proving doubters wrong all season.

Denver, however, just doesn’t look like part of that elite mix anymore.

Injuries suck.

2) Jayson Tatum is clutch, lifts Boston past Portland

I love watching Marcus Smart play basketball because of plays like this.

There are times I watch Boston play this season and think, “maybe, just maybe…”

This was one of those games. Portland is a quality team led by a guy in Damian Lillard who will finish top five — probably top three — in MVP voting, yet Boston’s defense kept up good pressure all night long. Then, when the game was on the line, Jayson Tatum was making plays and scored five late, including this dagger.

Norman Powell made it close late, but Boston got the 116-115 win.

On nights like this, when Kemba Walker is having the kind of gutty game expected of him (21 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists) and Tatum is looking like he has recovered from the virus that knocked him for a loop it’s hard not to think… maybe.

3) Miami latest team to learn Phoenix is for real

Miami came into this game having won 6-of-7 with a top-10 defense in the league during that stretch, looking like a team starting to figure it out. The Heat counting on that defense as they were aggressive with the early pressure on the Suns.

Phoenix just handled them. Chris Paul started shredding them with passes, and Phoenix’s bench turned this into a laugher. Of course, part of the problem was Miami shot 9-of-44 from three (20.5%), and it didn’t help Jimmy Butler tweaked his ankle. Make all the Heat excuses you want, Phoenix was the better team.

Deandre Ayton had 19 points and 13 boards as his leap forward season continues.

Phoenix is legit and Suns fans need to enjoy this ride, wherever it takes them.