Torrey Craig got the call around midnight Thursday. He caught an Uber from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where his G League team, the Sioux Falls Skyforce was playing Friday, to the airport at 4:30 a.m. He checked in for his flight at 5:15. A few hours later, Craig arrived in Denver in time for shootaround.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone would later inform Craig that he'd be starting at small forward, a flashbulb memory Craig would call "surreal." A whirlwind 24 hours was complete late Friday night after Craig was subbed in on the game's final possession of regulation and blocked Jrue Holiday's shot at the buzzer to force overtime.
Will Barton's 11 points in the extra period would lift Denver to thrilling 117-111 victory, but it was Craig's defensive brilliance in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter that gave Denver an extra life.
With an abbreviated scouting report that he digested just this morning, Craig didn't have much of a read what Holiday would do as he held the ball at midcourt with the clock counting down from 18.6 seconds.
"He's a great player," Craig said of Holiday as he spoke with reporters from his locker after the win. "I just tried to use my length and my size to contest the shot, and I was able to get a piece of it."
Holiday finally attacked Craig with under three seconds on the clock — not nearly enough time to get all the way to the rim. He took a few dribbles with his left hand and tried to get Craig in the air with a pump fake. He didn't bite. Craig recovered and was able to get a fingertip on the ball.
"When I went in the game and they inbounded the ball and it was like an isolation, I knew I had to make a big play for us to win the game," Craig recalled.
"I had no idea what he was going to do," he continued. "My first thought was he was going to try and take me to the basket, but he pulled up for a jumper and I was able to get a piece of it. He kind of bailed me out."
"Welcome to the NBA," a grinning Malone remarked.
Malone's decision to go with Craig on the game's final possessions was an easy one, he said. Even though Craig's inexperienced at the NBA level, his length and size would make things difficult for Holiday with time winding down. Craig stands at 6-foot-6 with long arms and an athletic build. He was the Defensive Player of the Year last season in the New Zealand Basketball League.
"That last play of regulation speaks to the potential he has as a defender in the NBA," Malone added.
Craig said he wasn't nervous but was a bit anxious prior to his first NBA start. He has dominated the G League this year with the Skyforce, averaging over 25 points per game. He's already had outings of 35 and 37 points this season, but Denver called him up because of his defense.
"He made the best stop of the game," Nikola Jokic, who returned from a seven-game absence due to an ankle injury and registered a double-double in 22 minutes, added. "He gave us a chance to win the game."
"I trust him," Barton said.
Under his two-way contract, Craig can only spend 45 days with the Nuggets. That limit is a reason Malone wanted to make sure Craig got on the floor tonight. No one could have predicted he'd be on the court for the game's last possession and come up with the game-saving play.
Craig finished the night with six points in 18 minutes. He also came up with a steal and two blocks, the most important of which came with less than a second on the clock.
"To get thrown in the fire and get a stop on a guy who's hot the whole game, killing us. That's big for your morale, and I'm happy for him," Barton said.
In Australia, where Craig spent a large chunk of the past few years playing, it's customary in celebration to drink beer, champagne or another alcoholic beverage out of one's shoe.
"Am I allowed?" Craig asked out loud when posed the question of if he'll indulge in a "shoey". He later said he won't partake, but he should. He deserves it.