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In an empty Nuggets locker room, aside from a few trainers and assorted media members, Will Barton exited the showers, gradually limped over to his locker located on the west side of the team’s dressing room and eased into the black leather chair embroidered with his No. 5. Barton began to dress. Slowly and gently. First his jeans, one leg at a time. Then his socks, his shoes and finally a white tee shirt and grey sweater.
Barton moved carefully, still in obvious pain from a right hip injury he suffered in the third quarter of the Nuggets’ 119-91 win over the Phoenix Suns Saturday night. Denver’s starting small forward collapsed to the floor in obvious pain after an acrobatic reverse layup, which gave him his 13th and 14th points of the evening, but ultimately ended his night for good. Upon landing, Barton immediately grabbed his groin and hip area and eventually laid down as team trainers rushed to his side. Barton was carted off the floor and didn’t return.
“It was on the jump,” Barton said. “As I was going into the air, I felt it.”
What did Barton feel? A pop in his hip, the 27-year-old said. Barton added that the pain has gone down and he’s experiencing soreness. The Nuggets are bracing themselves for the worst and hoping for the best, as Barton is slated for an MRI Sunday morning.
Saturday night was Denver’s home opener, and the sold-out crowd that packed Pepsi Center was treated to a magic show by none other than its star center Nikola Jokic. Jokic dazzled his way to 35 points on a perfect 11-11 shooting, 12 rebounds and 12 assists — his first triple-double of the season. The 23-year-old joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only players in NBA history to record a 30-point triple-double while shooting 100 percent from the field. Behind Jokic, Denver is off to its best start since the 2011-12 season
The Nuggets also look like a different team on defense after holding their first two opponents to under 100 points and under 40 percent shooting from the field. Three days after limiting the Clippers to 29 percent shooting from the three-point line, Denver’s three-point defense was even better Saturday. The Nuggets held the Suns to 11-39 (28 percent) shooting from distance. After scoring 35 points in his opener, Devin Booker tallied 25 against Denver and shot just 5-15 from the field.
But Jokic’s All-NBA caliber play to open the season and the obvious improvements Denver had made on the defensive end of the floor, largely thanks to a healthy Paul Millsap, will have to be tabled for now.
Before Barton’s injury, Denver was already thin at small forward. The Nuggets lost last season’s starter Wilson Chandler in the offseason, and with Chandler gone, the Nuggets were counting on Barton to be an ironman on the wing.
Barton is coming off a career-year where he averaged a career-high 15.7 points per game and hit 37 percent of his threes for a second-straight season across 81 games. Denver signed him to a four-year, $53 million contract this summer to be their starting three. It’s a perfect fit too. Through two games this season, the Nuggets first five has already outscored their opponent by 29 points in 46 minutes.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone’s cards are limited if he needs a long-term replacement for Barton. One option is backup small forward Juancho Hernangomez, who scored two points on 1-5 shooting in 15 minutes Saturday, but a more likely choice is Torrey Craig, who recorded a DNP-CD in the Nuggets’ opener but played 15 minutes against the Suns.
When Craig was on the floor Saturday, Denver outscored Phoenix by 22 points. Nuggets coach Michael Malone has played Craig in high-leverage situations as a rookie last year and isn’t afraid to use him in a similar capacity this season.
“Coach has been telling me to be ready,” Craig told BSN Denver. “And if I have to step up with Will going down, then I’m more than willing to do so.”
Barton’s more than just a potent scoring option for Denver who’s made countless big-time plays for the Nuggets in high-leverage situations over the past few seasons. He also carries a strong presence behind closed doors. Barton’s one of the Nuggets’ leaders and most vocal players on the floor. Without him, Denver’s quiet locker room will have to find its collective voice.
“We’re going to miss him a lot not just on the court, but vocally,” said Jokic. “He’s a guy who can speak with everybody, with coach. He can say whatever.”
After avoiding any major injuries throughout training camp and maintaining a healthy roster during the preseason, the Nuggets were dealt a heavy blow on night two of the regular season.
Losing Barton for a significant amount of time would be devastating for Denver’s rotation and could change the outcome of its season. The Nuggets know that. They’re fully aware of the value Barton brings to their club both on and off the floor.
They’ll await Sunday’s test results with bated breath.
“Whenever one of your brothers goes down, your heart breaks and you feel for them. Will is a guy that played with such passion and was having a great game,” Malone said. “… To see him carted off like that, you start to think the worst but I am going to try and remain optimistic and hope for the best and obviously, his teammates are giving him a lot of love right now, which he needs.”