Michael Malone’s phone lit up in the middle of his car ride home from the Nuggets’ 29-point win over the Clippers Sunday evening with a text from his starting small forward.
Will Barton’s message wasn’t in regards to the three points he scored that night on a paltry 1-6 shooting or his offensive inconsistencies, which through Sunday had been a prevalent storyline surrounding Denver’s do-it-all wing since he returned to the court in January after a hip injury sidelined him for the first three months of the season. It was about the Nuggets’ next opponent and a certain MVP candidate.
“I want to guard Paul George,” Barton wrote. “I want that challenge.”
“You got it,” Malone responded.
Forty-eight hours later Barton stood at the center circle as the Nuggets and Thunder tipped off next to George, who over the last few months had positioned himself in the middle of a what was once a two-man MVP race between James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo that most thought would stay that way throughout the remainder of the season. Holding George, who came into Tuesday’s matchup averaging roughly 29 points this season and had upped his scoring average to 35 points per game in February, in check would be no easy task. But in order for the Nuggets to secure a fifth-straight win over the Thunder and clinch the head-to-head tiebreaker over Oklahoma City, it would be necessary.
Barton also looked at the matchup as a chance to get his game back on track.
“I just wanted to challenge myself,” he said following the Nuggets 121-112 win. “Give Paul George credit, one of the best players in the NBA this year, having an MVP-caliber season. I just wanted to try to make it as hard as I could for him and like I said just to challenge myself, get myself going.”
Barton shadowed George for most of the 33 minutes he played versus the Thunder and helped limit the 6-foot-9 forward, who has three inches and around 30 pounds on the Nuggets’ wiry wing, to 25 points on just 7-24 shooting. George came into Tuesday’s matchup shooting around 40 percent from three but only converted on three of his 14 long-range attempts against Denver.
According to NBA.com tracking data, George shot just 3-10 when Barton was his primary defender. Barton stayed attached to George’s hip while chasing the shifty Thunder wing around screens and made sure to get a hand up on triples that he launched from around the arc.
“It’s nothing new and nothing shocking to us,” Paul Millsap said about Barton’s defensive performance. “We know what Will can do. We know his capabilities, especially on the defensive end. He’s a very good defensive player. He’s very underrated.”
Barton never lost faith in his ability throughout this season, one of the most trying of his seven-year career. But so far it hasn’t been the type of campaign that the 28-year-old envisioned when he re-upped on a four-year, $54 million contract with Denver last summer and assumed his spot in the Nuggets starting lineup. After injuring his hip in a painful fall midway through the second game of the season, Barton underwent surgery for the first time in his career, battled through a grueling rehab regimen and watched the Nuggets climb up the Western Conference standings in street clothes from the end of the bench.
Prior to Tuesday’s performance, Barton had been scoring well. He had eclipsed double-digit point totals in eight of his last 14 games but wasn’t putting the ball in the bucket efficiently, shooting under 40 percent from the field and 30 percent from three. His defense had dragged at times too.
Malone’s willingness to grant him the defensive assignment on George gave his confidence a boost. So did a conversation Tuesday with his mentor, ex-University of Memphis coach James Alford, who was an assistant on staff when Barton played for the Tigers from 2010-12 which reminded him to keep the long, 82-game season in perspective and cleared his mind heading into the pivotal Northwest Division showdown.
“I figured coming into this season it’s going to be one of my toughest years yet. Just because I got everything I wanted,” said Barton, reflecting on his new contract and more specifically a difficult last four months. “And I feel like when you get everything you want, the real test comes. Now, it’s just a mental battle with myself on and off the court about if you really want something, you’ve got to change some things. I came into the season knowing that.”
Barton shined defensively against George and the Thunder but also pieced together one of his best individual scoring game of the season finishing with 23 points on 9-16 shooting. Malone made an effort to put the ball in Barton’s hands more often against Oklahoma City, not only to get his scoring numbers up but also so he could act as more of an offensive initiator. Barton scored from three, the midrange, and around the hoop, and also handed out five assists — his highest total in two weeks — once again resembling the player so many of his teammates had grown accustomed to watching up close over the last few seasons.
“He’s a bucket,” said Jamal Murray. He’s slithery. He’s crafty. You don’t always know what he’s going to do.”
Barton’s night complimented a slew of standout offensive performances up and down the Nuggets’ roster. Nikola Jokic tallied 36 points, nine of which came in the fourth quarter, nine rebounds and 10 assists. Murray finished with 20 points and sunk four 3s, a few of which came when Denver badly needed a basket during Oklahoma City’s second-half comeback bid. Paul Millsap recorded 12 points, 10 rebounds and had countless impactful defensive plays down the stretch that were crucial to the Nuggets clinching their 42nd win of the year.
But it was Barton and Denver’s defense, which was also helped by contributions from Malik Beasley, Gary Harris and Torrey Craig, that laid the blueprint for a league-leading 27th win at home. Denver has now won 20 of its last 21 games at Pepsi Center.
“I might not be as fundamentally sound as a Gary Harris or Torrey Craig,” Barton said of his defense. “But I’m just competitive. I’ve hooped in the streets a lot.”
Denver is now four games up on Oklahoma City in the standings and with the head-to-head tiebreaker in hand, the Nuggets essentially have a five-game advantage over the Thunder and the inside track on the second seed in the West with 22 games remaining.
The Nuggets’ remarkable season may just be getting started. Denver played its opening night starting lineup together for the first time since Barton crumpled to the hardwood in October and Barton, Murray, Harris, Millsap, and Jokic finished off the Thunder in style late in Tuesday’s fourth quarter. If that lineup is able to stay healthy and play heavy minutes together over the rest of the season, the Nuggets could do significant damage in the playoffs.
“We’re one of the best teams in the league and night in and night out we just gotta keep trying to prove it,” said Barton. “We have no fear. This is a deep and talented team. The most talented I’ve ever been a part of. You can just tell by the demeanor and our attitude we just want to compete with the best because we feel like we are the best.”
Next up for the Nuggets?
The Utah Jazz, who come to Pepsi Center Thursday night in another nationally televised Northwest Division battle.
Next up for Barton?