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Will Barton tried to block it out, but his mind kept wandering as he ran up and down the Pepsi Center hardwood Saturday.
Barton was thinking about Louis Grant, who was shot and killed Friday morning in Baltimore. Grant, 26, was Barton’s cousin.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about him during the game. I couldn’t stop,” Barton told DNVR after the Nuggets’ 118-110 win over the Memphis Grizzlies. “I just wanted to play hard. That’s what he would have wanted from me, so that’s what I was trying to do tonight.”
With every one of Barton’s shots that dropped Saturday, his thoughts went back to Grant, who went by ‘Lou.’ He thought back to his childhood and how the two had grown up together. Barton wanted to bring the same energy to the floor against the Grizzlies that Lou brought to his life every day.
“He was the best kind of person,” Barton said. He had a great personality. He was funny. He was loyal. His energy was so contagious. He had the best energy of anyone that I’ve ever been around in my life.”
Barton’s career year continued against the Grizzlies. He tallied 20 points, six rebounds, and seven assists in 36 minutes of action. Barton’s now averaging 14.4 points on 45.6% shooting from the field, 39.3% from three-point range, seven rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game. He’s averaging career-highs in field goal percentage, three-point percentage, and rebounds.
“All season long Will has impacted the game in all areas,” Michael Malone said. “And tonight was just another example of that.”
Barton wore a jacket to the arena Saturday that had his “Protect The Family” logo stitched on the back. He also had a collage of pictures of himself and Lou in his locker.
His death will be ever-present in Barton’s mind over the next week when the Nuggets open a five-game road trip while Denver’s starting small forward could be prepping for Lou’s funeral. The road trip takes Denver through Washington D.C. a week from today for a matchup with the Wizards, who play an hour south of where Barton and his cousin grew up.
Against the Grizzlies, the Nuggets bounced back nicely from their disappointing loss on Christmas Day to the Pelicans to record their eighth win in nine games. Nikola Jokic recorded his seventh triple-double of the season and paced Denver with a season-high 31 points on 12 of 19 shooting to go with 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Mason Plumlee started in place of Paul Millsap, who missed the game with a left knee contusion and contributed 15 points and seven rebounds. Michael Porter Jr. had arguably his best game as a pro, finishing with 11 points on 4 of 7 shooting (3 of 5 from deep), four rebounds, and two steals.
After the Grizzlies opened the third by outscoring the Nuggets 13-9 and cutting Denver’s advantage to 10 points, Malone called a timeout to halt Memphis’ momentum. Barton checked in a few possessions later and scored seven points over the remainder of the quarter while also tallying three assists.
As it’s been all season, Barton’s playmaking was on display against the Grizzlies. The 28-year-old tallied 15 points in the second half and was on the receiving end of a couple of vintage Nikola Jokic assists as Barton found success cutting to the hoop against a Memphis defense that is the sixth-worst in the NBA.
Barton has been instrumental to the Nuggets’ 22-9 record this season. It’s Denver’s best start in franchise history.
“I thought he was really big in a stretch when we needed him to be in the second half,” Malone said. “The game got much closer than it should have been. I called a timeout. It looked like we were playing selfish basketball. The ball wasn’t moving. Everybody was standing and watching, one guy would go 1-on-1, and that’s not who we are.
“After that timeout, I thought Will was terrific in terms of making plays for guys, scoring, being aggressive, getting downhill into the paint.”
There have been 342 murders in Baltimore this year. It’s the city’s deadliest year on record, per capita, according to Baltimore’s Fox 45. More homicides have taken place in Baltimore over the last 12 months than in New York City.
Death is part of life, but murder shouldn’t be, and Barton has dealt with the latter too often growing up in Baltimore. Basketball can provide a distraction, but when death hits as close to home as Lou’s did, there’s only so much one can block out.
“I knew it was going to be tough for me,” Barton said. “I knew I wasn’t going to make every shot. I knew I was going to make some mistakes. But I knew he just would want me to play hard. So that’s what I tried to do.”