DENVER -- The Nuggets are desperately holding onto the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference and are looking for their first postseason action since the 2013-2014 season. In their pursuit, they've had many hurdles to overcome but Will Barton's struggles since the All-Star break have been difficult to comprehend.
Barton started the season as a potential candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, putting up 14.0 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 2.3 assists on 42 percent shooting from the field and 37 percent shooting from three in his first 15 games. He was acting as the Nuggets' secondary ball-handler and was the catalyst for Denver's bench unit.
After the All-Star break, things started to fall apart for Barton. In his first ten games out of the break, his numbers plummeted to 9.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 3.5 assists on just 38.1 percent shooting and a meager 23.7 percent from beyond the arc. His shot stopped falling and Barton went from an explosive scoring bench guard to an isolation-heavy volume shooter. He became the antithesis of the Nuggets' offensive identity and Barton knew he needed to find a way out of the slump he was in.
"When I was in my slump, or whatever you want to call it, 'how do I get back to that?'" Barton said he asked himself. "It's hard when you're in a slump and you're in the gym as much as I am. Because you're like, 'well I'm working hard' and then you start overthinking. Now I'm just saying trust the work you've put in, think team-first, and play."
Suddenly, Barton found his groove and put up 22 points and six assists against the Lakers on March 13 and followed up that performance with a career-high 35 points on 12-18 shooting and hit 7-10 from distance three days later in a win over the Clippers. Barton's reinvigoration was swift and desperately needed for Denver in their playoff pursuit.
"I'm a baller. I'm one of the guys who will play 5-on-5 in the gym all day until whoever quits. That's just who I've been my whole life so I don't even think about it," Barton explained. "I'm just happy to be out there playing. This could go on forever if it's up to me."
It's Barton's mentality that he carries with him from playing on the blacktop courts back in his hometown of Baltimore that allowed him to quickly stop his struggles and continue to get better, as he has every season with Denver. Barton is a self-proclaimed "baller" and that mindset makes him so dangerous. The 26-year-old never stops striving, is usually one of the toughest guys on the floor, and his borderline psychotic work ethic is a sight to behold.
"You have to be tough growing up playing outside. Like me, I was more of a street player," Barton said. "Outside, you played all day. Especially summer time. We would till you couldn't see anymore. That's the culture I come from and its stayed with me my whole life."
Michael Malone has echoed similar sentiments about Barton's work ethic and how deeply rooted the game of basketball is in his life. He was not surprised at the vigor in which Barton smashed his slump to pieces.
"I think it speaks to Will. He never gets tired. The guy is an energizer bunny. He just keeps going," Malone said. "I think the fact that he has been struggling and then put together two games like that back-to-back. He didn't want to come out. He wants to play, he is feeling good, he is playing well, he is hot, let him play.
Malone has the utmost confidence in Barton and understands the impact he can bring to Denver off of the bench. The majority of championship caliber teams have had an explosive combo guard off of their bench that's able to swing games on a moments notice with lights-out shooting and energetic play. Barton can be that guy for Denver.
"I grabbed him a couple games ago and just let him know how important he is to us and what I could do to help him out and get him going because obviously he had been struggling prior to the last game so to see Will Barton put together back to back performances like he has I feel great for him," Malone said. "He's hard on himself and he works hard. He is the first guy here every day. I want our fans to know that. Will Barton is a tremendously hard worker and to see him relaxing and letting the game come to him and making plays are great to see and hopefully will continue going forward."
If the Nuggets are to hold onto the final playoff spot in the West they need Barton to bounce back, and Barton to continue this run. With just 12 games remaining on the schedule and Portland breathing down Denver's neck, every game is now a must-win game.
"This time of the season you cannot make excuses," Barton said. "Coach and the team needed me to step up and that is all I wanted to do. We know what we are trying to get to and trying to make that push. All I focus on is doing whatever I need to do to help us win games."