Idling on the bench in street clothes for the last five games with a tight hamstring, Gary Harris felt detached from the rest of his teammates on the Nuggets’ bench, according to his dribble-hand-off compadre Nikola Jokic.
“I think he was lonely, to be honest because we were talking, all into the games and he was on the side. So he was just lonely,” Jokic said following the Nuggets’ 135-105 win over the Chicago Bulls. “He wanted to get back.”
Harris has spent almost as many games in a jet black sports coat, his typical attire when out due to an injury, then in a Nuggets uniform this season. Myriad ailments, the most notable of which was a right hip injury that sidelined the 24-year-old for 11 games in December, has only allowed Harris to log minutes in 25 of Denver’s 44 matchups this season. But the Nuggets’ starting shooting guard shed the blazer for his familiar No. 14 jersey Thursday, as he left Isaiah Thomas, Michael Porter Jr. and Jarred Vanderbilt on the sidelines and rejoined the Nuggets’ lineup for the first time in 10 days.
Under a firm minutes restriction off Denver’s bench, Harris scored 14 points on 6-11 shooting, converted two of his three triples and tallied two assists. He looked the part in 19 minutes of action.
“What a luxury to bring a guy like Gary Harris off the bench,” Michael Malone said, reflecting on Harris’ return. “He’s a heck of a player. I said it all of last year and the two years prior, he’s probably our most consistent player. You know what you’re getting from Gary every single night. He plays at a high level defensively, he accepts that challenge, and offensively, I mean you’re seeing his game improve. You know that he can shoot. You know that he can get the basket. But now he’s adding playmaking, pick and roll, and making plays for his teammates. (He has a) very calming effect.”
While Porter, Denver’s first-round pick who’s yet to see the floor this season, is the Nuggets’ brand new Maserati, the flashy toy that the team is waiting for just the right time to roll out of the garage, potentially not until next season, Harris is Denver’s F-150. He’s the reliable super duty truck that always gets you from point A to point B right on time, which is just what the Nuggets need on both offense and defense as they work Harris and Will Barton, who missed Thursday’s game due to personal reasons, back into their starting lineup.
“He’s just so solid defensively, offensively, getting to his spots, hitting threes, getting into the paint, putting pressure on the defense,” his backcourt Jamal Murray said. “He does it all.”
“That’s just who he is. He comes in here every single day, and he’s the same person every single day,” Paul Millsap added. “It all translates over to the court. Gary’s just Gary. We know what we’re going to get from him off the court. We know what we’re going to get from him on the court.”
Sure the Bulls 90’s era disjointed and lifeless offense under head coach Jim Boylen helped, but once the Nuggets turned the key on their powerful V8 and let Harris out of their repair shop, Denver’s defense instantly gained more horsepower. Harris, who’s been one of the Nuggets’ better perimeter defenders for the last couple of seasons, helped limit Zach LaVine to just eight points on 4-15 shooting.
“If you can shut a guy like Zach LaVine down for three quarters, that’s a job well done,” said Malone.
As a team, Denver held Chicago to under 50 percent shooting from the field and 6-19 from three after the Bulls got out to a hot start in the first period.
“We know what type of defensive team we can be when we’re locked in,” Harris said. “We’re finally playing better offensively, and we kind of got away from what we were doing earlier (defensively), so we’re just trying to find that median and trying to get them both clicking at the same time.”
The defensive performance, which Harris was a big part of, was something the Nuggets can build on after weeks of underwhelming efforts on that end of the floor. Denver’s defense slipped to 10th overall after its blowout loss to the Warriors after holding steady in the league’s top-5 for most of the season. Over the Nuggets’ last 22 games, Denver had fielded the league’s sixth-worst defense.
The Nuggets limited the Bulls to just 17 points in the second quarter and 9-26 shooting in the third.
“That was the response we were all hoping for,” said Malone. “… That third quarter might have been one of our better quarters of the season.”
Harris’ return was a welcome site for Malone and his team, who have somehow kept their heads above water while injuries to three starters — Harris, Barton and Millsap — have ravaged what Denver had pegged as its rotation on opening night. The Nuggets starting lineup of Murray, Harris, Barton, Millsap and Jokic, who tallied a cool 18 points, eight rebounds and 11 assists, becoming just the second player in NBA history (Magic Johnson) to post that stat line in 26 minutes or less, has only logged 46 minutes together this year.
Barton, who missed Thursday’s matchup due to personal reasons, has seen action in three games since returning from a three-month absence. Millsap is back in rhythm and said he’s “pain free” following a fractured right big toe that sidelined Denver’s starting power forward for eight games in late December.
Harris’ return means the Nuggets are closer to being whole again, which an exciting prospect for Malone and Jokic, who knows Denver’s read-and-react offense just isn’t the same without his partner in crime.
“You can see him enjoying the game. He’s just playing for fun and that’s how he’s supposed to play,” said Jokic. “It’s good to have him back.”