Michael Malone’s pep talk gets Will Barton back on track

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DENVER -- Prior to late-February's All-Star break, Will Barton was enjoying a career year in his fifth NBA season.

Averages of 13.9 points on 44.6 percent shooting from the field and 38.1 percent from three, along with 4.7 rebounds and 3.4 assists had Barton on pace to eclipse his breakout numbers from a year ago. But in nine games since the break, Barton had struggled.

Barton's stumbles were so significant post-All-Star break that coach Michael Malone and Barton spoke 1-on-1 to try and get to the bottom of what was contributing to the 9.6 points on 38.1 percent shooting from the field and 23.7 percent from three that Barton posted over Denver's past nine games.

"I pulled him to the side, trying to see what's going on. 'How you feeling? What can I do to help you out?'" Malone said. "Like Will said a couple games ago, 'I just have to come into the game trying to make the right play.' I think sometimes he thinks he has to make the play, so I think he just has to kind of let the game come to him a little bit and I think he's pressing because he's thinking so much. Every shot he shoots he's like 'I got to make this to kind of break out of that slump.' And if he's putting that kind of pressure on himself, it's going to be that much harder to get out of that slump. So just relax, let the game come to him."

Those offensive struggles ended in a big way Monday night

Barton scored 22 points on 7-12 shooting to go with six assists, two days after one of his worst performances of the season; a two-point night where the 26-year-old shot just 1-6 from the field. Malone's sermon was apparently just what Barton needed to hear.

"It helped me a lot," Barton said of his chat with Malone. "Anytime I have trust in my coaching staff and they believe in me and tell me I'm a big part of this team they need me to play well it does a lot for my confidence. I was overthinking a lot. Kind of playing a new role coming off the bench. Kind of playing like a point so overthinking should I take the shot, should I not? Instead of just being myself and tonight I just wanted to come out and be aggressive."

Barton certainly let the game come to him Monday. The versatile wing, who's playing a lot of point guard with Denver's second unit this season alongside rookie Jamal Murray, was aggressive from the start and confident throughout his 30 minutes of action.

Barton wasn't shy in getting his looks in either. He registered Denver's highest usage percentage in Monday night's win at 26.1 percent and hit open shots. Barton shot 4-7 on uncontested field goals as well, per NBA.com.

"We needed that, man. Will Barton is a very important piece, we all know that. Since the break he just hasn't found his groove and tonight you see him shoot the ball as well as he did from three, being the playmaker he was," Malone said. "He gets 22 points and six assists off the bench. That was fantastic. So hopefully, this can get him going. When Will is like that off the bench it gives us a whole 'nother element."

In a playoff race that looks like it will come down to the final few games of the season, the Nuggets need a consistent stretch from Barton in order to lock up the eighth seed.

At his best, Barton's a steadying force on Denver's second unit, a group that's been patched together as injuries have ravaged the Nuggets' roster throughout the regular season. The free-spirited scorer can get a bucket on his own when Denver's in a drought and when engaged, can be a plus on both ends of the floor.

However, up until Monday, it just wasn't clicking for Barton since the All-Star break.

Opponents were outscoring Denver by 3.8 points per 100 possessions with Barton on the floor over the Nuggets' nine games since the break before Monday night's win. With Barton on the bench, the Nuggets were outscoring opponents by 14.0 points per 100 possessions. Not playing a ton of minutes with Nikola Jokic, who can inflate anyone's offensive numbers is a factor that goes into that margin, but it also illustrates how much Barton had struggled as of late.

Here's what those on/off court numbers look like after Monday's win.

[caption id="attachment_76958" align="aligncenter" width="562"] Best and worst Net On/Off Ratings post-All-Star break[/caption]

With Wilson Chandler's status up in the air for Thursday, after the forward underwent an MRI on his injured groin, Denver needs this kind of effort from Barton on a night-in, night-out basis. They'll also need Barton to bring it defensively. It's tough to grade Denver's defensive effort against the Lakers, the 25th-worst offense in the league this year, but opponents did shoot 6-9 at the rim with Barton as the closest defender, according to NBA.com's box score.

The Nuggets will see if Barton can put together another efficient performance when Denver welcomes the Clippers to Pepsi Center Thursday.

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