NBA Daily: Malone, Nuggets Just Keep On Fighting

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At 16-14, the Denver Nuggets are far from NBA royalty. Currently, the darling sleeper pick of the summer is in a dogfight for fourth place in the stacked Western Conference with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Portland Trail Blazers. Inversely, somehow, Denver remains inside the playoff picture by just 1.5 games as well. But for a franchise that has dealt with a major injury already, the fact that the Nuggets have weathered the storm at all is a testament to their well-rounded roster and a resilience.

Unfortunately, that injury belongs to Paul Millsap, the Nuggets’ recent marquee free agent signing. His wrist surgery to fix a torn ligament suffered in November is expected to keep him out until after the All-Star break, if not longer. Naturally, misery loves company, so 11 days later, center Nikola Jokic sprained his ankle and missed the next seven games — an injury that occurred just prior to a brutal road trip. Still, head coach Mike Malone has found a source of pride in the Nuggets’ resilient spirit night after night.

“It’s been great coaching — why is everybody laughing?” Malone joked to the media before a recent game. “When you lose Paul and Nikola, granted those are our two best players, but you have Mason Plumlee, who has started on a playoff team before. You have Kenneth Faried, who has played major minutes. Wilson Chandler is starting to find his rhythm, get into a groove and get his confidence back. Gary Harris and Will Barton have embraced playing 40-plus minutes a night and [are] doing a great job.”

There’s no embellishment here either, Malone is right on point about his roster’s willingness to step up in big moments.

Currently, the Nuggets’ bench unit tallies 39.3 points per game, good for the ninth-best mark in the NBA. As Plumlee (6.7 points, 5.4 rebounds), Faried (6.6 points, 5.2 rebounds) and Barton (15.4 points, 3.7 assists) have stepped up as the incumbent starter when called upon, their second unit numbers have remained strong nonetheless. For example, there’s the case of Trey Lyles, who sports a career average of just 6.4 points and 3.6 rebounds over a paltry 16.7 minutes per game. Through November, Lyles had accrued more DNP-CDs (5) than he had double-digit scoring totals (3), but the injury to Jokic unleashed a side of the stretch power forward we’re rarely seen from him at the NBA level.

Over the last nine games, Lyles has exploded for a red-hot 14 points per contest, a stretch that also includes his first-ever back-to-back 20-point efforts. In fact, during his previous 167 career games, Lyles reached the 20-point plateau on just two others occasions — now, he’s gotten there twice in the last 10 days. Always the motivator, Malone has encouraged his players, both new and old, to take advantage of the fresh opportunities.

“We’ve always had a next man up mentality …” Malone said. “It’s part of the NBA, there are going to be injuries — how do you respond to that? Do you feel sorry for yourself — which I will never let us do — or do you embrace the opportunity and the minutes that you now have available because of the injuries? I think guys have done a really good job with that.”

According to Malone, Barton is another key rotation player that has grown fully into his new role. While Barton has been long lauded for his energetic scoring ability off the bench, little else was expected from the sixth-year professional. Today, Barton has seen a statistical rise in all the right places — points (15.4), assists (3.7), field goal percentage (45.8) and three-point percentage (38.9) — while becoming a defensive asset that his head coach and teammates can trust. Poetically, on the night that Jokic sprained his ankle, Barton’s 37 points — and a game-winning reverse layup with 3.2 seconds left — single-handedly pushed the Nuggets past the Bulls late last month.

Slowly but surely, this Denver campaign has turned into a total team effort, a season that’ll hinge on getting consistent contributions from the entire rotation. Barton is often overshadowed by the promising pair of backcourt starters in Jamal Murray and the aforementioned Harris, but Malone credits the 6-foot-6 guard with extending his game beyond just getting buckets.

“He means everything — [Barton] is just a complete basketball player …” Malone said. “Last year when we had [Danilo Gallinari], we had Chandler and Harris and he wasn’t sure of the minutes — I think he kinda forced it a little bit and was looking for his shot too much. Now he knows he’s going to play heavy minutes and he’s playing a complete game — he’s a scorer, he’s a facilitator, he’s a rebounder.

“I think the greatest area of improvement and growth has been on the defensive end — and not just one-on-one,” Malone continued. “His weak-side awareness [and] game plan discipline is so much improved from where it was last year and I’m just really proud of Will Barton because of all the growth that he’s shown.”

The Nuggets’ overall productivity has not come without their fair share of bruises along the way, however. Heading into this crucial holiday stretch, Denver is just 5-9 against teams that currently hold a playoff spot. Even worse, the Nuggets must finish off the calendar year by playing the Minnesota Timberwolves twice, plus games against the Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors, Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz. While the Jazz have dealt with their own slew of injury issues this season, the Nuggets’ divisional rivals have handed them two losses by a combined total of 39 points.

Given their record without their two best players, there’s certainly reason to be optimistic in Denver. Should the Nuggets continue on at this pace, they’ll be firmly cemented in the postseason conversation when Millsap recovers sometime in the spring. With Jokic’s much-needed return, the Nuggets can finally settle back into what they do best: Efficient offensive basketball.

“We had the No. 1 offense in the NBA the second half of [last] year and we’re trying to get back to [that] this year,” Malone said. “You have guys that are making plays for each other and looking to make the right play and I think that unselfishness is definitely contagious for our guys.”

As of now, the Nuggets have no choice but to stay the course. Thankfully, Denver has proved that they’re up to the task of surviving in the Western Conference without their $90 million dollar man. While the improvement of budding prospects like Murray and Harris have been easily identifiable, credit also belongs with those that stepped up following the injuries. From Lyles to Barton, the Nuggets have — as Malone would say — embraced the opportunity and found two more competitors willing to take on a bigger role.

Complete team efforts are a necessary evil for the Nuggets right now as they’re just one of five teams — along with the Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers, Miami HEAT and Sacramento Kings — that don’t have a scorer averaging over 17 points per game. Harris’ 16.1 per game is as close as the Nuggets get to that threshold, although Barton, Millsap, Jokic and Murray eclipse 14 points in their own right. They’re also the only team on that list that currently sits within the top eight of their conference, so Malone clearly has his young roster doing something right. Treading water is not always easy, but Denver will likely take their punches and come out on the other side better for it.

Speaking about that welcomed end to a difficult road trip, Malone expounded on one of the Nuggets’ important team mantras.

“What happens a lot of times is you come off of a great win and you’re coming into the last game of a long road trip — three games in four nights — and sometimes you exhale. When you exhale, you get your ass kicked.

“So I’m hoping that we don’t exhale, I’m hoping that we continue to fight and compete.”

That may as well be a microcosm of the Nuggets’ entire season thus far: Don’t exhale, keep fighting. To this point, Malone and his team have done a hell of a job doing exactly that.