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Torrey Craig gives a lesson in sacrifice, selflessness, and what it means to be a Denver Nugget

Harrison Wind Avatar
November 21, 2019

Like a bird stalking its prey, Torrey Craig slowly closed in on James Harden while the league’s leading scorer turned towards the basket and surveyed the floor. As Craig began to venture further and further away from Russell Westbrook, who he was matched up with this Rockets’ trip down the court and towards Houston’s top offensive option, Harden’s eyes darted towards his point guard who was all of a sudden alone at the top of the key.

But Craig was too quick even for a player as instinctual and skilled as Harden. With Monte Morris already applying pressure at the point of attack, Craig converged, doubled the ball and leaped into the air just as Harden let go of a pass intended for Westbrook. Craig batted the ball out to half-court, shouldered Harden out of the way, and found himself free of the defense and alone at Denver’s basket. He skied for a spur-of-the-moment 180 dunk that nearly blew the roof off Pepsi Center.

“Next time I’ll get a full 360 when I have a little more energy,” Craig said. “I was a kind of gassed.”

Craig’s slam with just over eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter of the Nuggets’ 105-95 win over the Rockets was the first nail in Houston’s coffin. Craig was credited with a steal on Denver’s next defensive possession — a sequence that ended with a Morris layup — and suddenly the Nuggets had pushed their fourth-quarter advantage to 14 points. The Rockets never got to within single digits over the remainder of regulation.

Nikola Jokic’s 27 points helped, but a stout defensive performance, one of the best of the Michael Malone era, carried Denver to just its second win over Houston in the two team’s last 12 meetings. The Nuggets sent perfectly timed double-teams Harden’s way, executed one flawless rotation after another on the backside of their defense, limited the Rockets’ potent offense to just 42.1% shooting from the field, 31.6% from 3, and forced Houston into 20 turnovers. Westbrook tallied 25 points on the night but needed 22 shots to do so. Harden added 27, his lowest scoring output since the Rockets’ opening night loss to the Bucks.

“We gave him different looks, we got the ball out of his hands,” Malone said about the Nuggets’ defense on Harden. “The guys believed, they executed, and that’s what you have to do against the great players and the game plan worked this time.”
At the center of the Nuggets’ stalwart defensive effort on Harden and Westbrook were Gary Harris, Will Barton, and Craig, who all bothered both Houston guards all night. But it was Craig’s ferocity that stole the show with the extra-effort plays that Malone credited for the Nuggets’ win.

In the second quarter, Craig jumped in front of an incoming Clint Capela screen while shadowing Harden into the front-court, causing the Houston big man to extend his knee leading to an open court car crash between the two and a Rockets’ offensive foul. With 11 minutes remaining in the fourth, Craig came from the opposite side of the basket and secured his only rebound of the game off of an errant Juancho Hernangomez triple, out-maneuvering Capela and Chris Clemons for the 50-50 ball. Craig then found Hernangomez a few moments later for a layup which gave the Nuggets a 10-point lead.

At the 10 minute mark of the fourth off a Houston miss, Craig took off down the right side of the floor, received a pass from Mason Plumlee at the right-wing, took one dribble and finished with a left-handed flush before tumbling to the hardwood on what would later be ruled a flagrant one foul on Ben McLemore.

More stout defense from Craig followed. With 9:20 left in the game he pressed up on Harden well beyond the three-point line and eventually forced a miss on a shot Harden doesn’t miss often: a floater from just inside the foul line. He made similar defensive plays while guarding Westbrook throughout the game as well.

Craig also tallied three blocks, all of which came while guarding Westbrook.

I just try not to give them space to get to their spots, always crowd them, make sure there’s a body in front of them at all times, contest every shot or layup or anything to the rim,” Craigs said divulging a bit of his strategy when guarding Houston’s backcourt. “And it paid off.”

When Craig checked into the game at the 1:36 mark of the first quarter, most of Pepsi Center did a double-take. Why is Craig, who had been out of the Nuggets’ rotation for the past three games, walking to the scorer’s table for meaningful minutes in a close game? Craig opened the season as Denver’s backup small forward but had recently ceded playing time to both Hernangomez and rookie Michael Porter Jr. over the last week.

Deploying Craig was a move Malone had been planning all day. Craig has historically guarded Westbrook well, holding the point guard to just 4 of 21 shooting across four games last season, per NBA.com, and Malone knew he’d need heavy dosages of one of the Nuggets’ better perimeter defenders if Denver was going to have a prayer in stopping Houston’s No. 1 ranked attack.

“I knew to go into this game that this is a tailored made Torrey Craig type of game,” Malone said.

Before excavating Craig from his bullpen of a bench, flush with both offensive options in Hernangomez and Porter and a defensive one in Craig, Malone pulled the forward aside after Denver’s 17-point win in Memphis over the weekend. Craig only played six minutes of garbage time in the victory but Malone wanted him to know that wasn’t always going to be the case even though the Nuggets’ bench with Hernangomez and Porter getting significant minutes was playing better.

“Stay with me. It’s a long year,” Malone told Craig. “You started 11 playoff games for us. I believe in you. Just because you’re not playing right now doesn’t mean you’re not going to get your opportunity soon.”

Malone has followed a similar playbook with his plethora of wings this season, some of whom, like Craig, has been in and out of his rotation. In a 48 minute game, the Nuggets can’t play all of Barton, Craig, Hernangomez, Porter, and Malik Beasley, and to stay transparent Malone has relayed the same message of staying ready to whoever are the odd men out on that given night. As of late, it’s been Beasley but Porter couldn’t find his way onto the court either against the Rockets.

On Wednesday afternoon, Malone counseled Craig again, stressing to the 28-year-old that Denver would need his defense that night.

“‘Be locked in. I need you to do what you do best. I don’t care that Torrey Craig is (shooting) 30% from 3. That’s not why you’re out there,'” Malone told him. “He’s out there to defend, make energy plays, get us extra possessions.”

Craig wasn’t caught off guard when word came down that he was going to play a significant role in the Nuggets’ game plan to stop Westbrook and Harden, and his teammates weren’t surprised that the reserve forward was ready for the task at hand.

“I’ve been telling him the last couple of games, ‘Keep your head up. We’re still going to need you,'” Barton said. “He’s one of our best defenders so I knew tonight he’d probably get his name called, and I kept telling him just be ready. And he was ready.”
Craig finished the game with eight timely points, one rebound, three assists, two steals, and three blocks in 19 minutes of action. He missed both of his three-point attempts and is now shooting under 30% from 3 on the season.

In Malone’s words, Craig did what he does best.

Just over seven weeks ago at Denver’s annual team dinner on the eve of their first training camp practice, Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly addressed his team as he does before every season. That night Connelly spoke about several topics but centered his message around what would become one of the central themes to the Nuggets’ season: sacrifice.

Denver was entering training camp with an incredibly deep team and there would be NBA caliber rotation players on the Nuggets’ roster who would undoubtedly garner significantly more playing time elsewhere. With at least seven players potentially hitting free agency next summer, the Nugget needed to sell their roster on the need to sacrifice for the greater good. If Denver had enough team success and accomplished the goals the Nuggets outlined for themselves that night in Colorado Springs, everyone would reap the rewards.

Craig took that message to heart even though he was entering a contract year himself and turned down more money in free agency in the summer of 2018 to stay with the Nuggets and the organization that gave him a chance at Summer League after he’d been playing in Australia and New Zealand for the past couple of years.

“Coming into the season you know that we’re a deep team so a lot of talented guys won’t get to play as much as they’d like or at all for that matter,” Craig said. “You’ve just got to be ready. You’ve got to be a professional about it.”

Craig’s selfless nature isn’t lost within the walls of the Pepsi Center. It’s one of Craig’s defining qualities and one Malone and his staff call on often when reflecting on what it’s like to coach such a humble player who always carries a team-first approach.

“It’s part of the business, part of the game, part of sports,” Craig said. “Once you accept it and continue to support your teammates and be that leader, everything is easier.”

Standing at his locker late Wednesday night, Craig, like you would have guessed, deflected all praise for the Nuggets’ strong defensive showing.

“I was just trying to do anything I could for us to get a win,” he said. “Come out, play with a lot of energy, do my job on defense, make everybody’s job a little easier.”

It was another example of how Craig embodies the values of sacrifice and selflessness that the Nuggets’ culture is built upon. He has no ego, has never complained about playing time, and never pouted when benched last week after Malone sensed the Nuggets’ second unit needed new energy. He represents what Denver is about and what the Nuggets’ organization stands for. He’s a Denver Nugget through and through.

Craig has been a consummate pro and teammate throughout the Nuggets’ opening 13 games even though his role has already changed countless times. While out of Malone’s rotation, Craig was always up on the sideline standing for possession after possession, cheering on whichever five players were on the floor and yelling out pick-and-roll coverages in search of one more defensive stop.

It’s why his teammates were eager to return the favor and greet Craig at mid-court during Denver’s next timeout after his 180-degree dunk, the signature highlight from the Nuggets’ first statement win of the season.

After so much sacrifice, it was a moment well-deserved.


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