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"We have a long way to go": On a frustrating night at Pepsi Center, Will Barton provides much-needed perspective on preseason
Raise your hand if you had Paul Millsap’s first career ejection coming against the Perth Wildcats?
That’s what kind of night it was for the Denver Nuggets in their preseason game Friday against last year’s semi-finalists from Australia and New Zealand’s National Basketball League. The normally mild-mannered Millsap was just 1-6 from the field before he drove baseline by his defender and dunked but got hit with back-to-back technicals by referee Jason Goldenberg midway through the third quarter of Denver’s 96-88 win. Millsap appeared to be petitioning Goldenberg for a foul call.
“I think he was frustrated with all the fouls, or lack of fouls if you will,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said of Millsap, who didn’t speak with left the arena without speaking with reporters. “They were a very physical group. We knew that we’d see that tonight. Paul Millsap is a four-time All-Star and obviously, he wasn’t getting many calls out there.”
Perth brought the physical nature of the NBL to Pepsi Center. The Wildcats trailed by 10 at halftime but pulled to within one point at the 1:51 mark of the third quarter. The Nuggets pulled away for a 96-88 victory but were less than satisfied with the result.
Last season, Denver had trouble getting up for games against inferior opponents, and Friday’s matchup sung an all-too familiar tune. In an empty Pepsi Center, the Nuggets came out flat, just as they did in losses to the Phoenix Suns, Atlanta Hawks and on the road to the Sacramento Kings last year.
Those defeats haunted Malone and the organization throughout the summer, and dropping games Denver should have won was a key reason why it was kept out of the playoffs for a fifth consecutive year.
“It’s such a big point going into the season because that was an issue for us last year, just thinking we can show up and play,” Malone said. “And when we just think we can show up and play, we don’t play well. Against an NBA team, we would have gotten blown out tonight.”
Are the Nuggets panicking after coming out flat against Perth? Of course not.
It’s the preseason, and Friday was the first time where the Nuggets were able to roll out their full starting lineup. Gary Harris missed Denver’s first two preseason matchups with a strained hamstring but was impressive in 22 minutes of action, scoring 13 points. Jamal Murray is still getting over an ankle injury that he battled throughout training camp and forced him to miss the Nuggets’ game Tuesday in Los Angeles.
“Right now, I understand it’s the preseason, and I understand that it’s a process, so I’m not really too frustrated,” Will Barton said. “I think in spurts, we were frustrated as a team, but that’s why I try to remind the guys, ‘Hey, it’s still preseason. It’s our first game playing together. Relax.'”
“… There were moments where guys were frustrated, but we have to realize where we’re at right now,” Barton added. “We have a long way to go. It’s only the third preseason game, there’s nothing wrong with that. No one has all the answers right now. I’ve seen OKC lose to a team last year that was not in the NBA and still made the playoffs. It’s never as bad as it seems, it’s never as good as it seems. Of course, I’m frustrated with things that went on but at the same time, it’s practice. We’re working out kinks.”
All five members of the Nuggets’ starting lineup — Murray, Harris, Barton, Millsap and Nikola Jokic — finished with a negative +/- Friday. But considering what that group did on the floor together last season, that five-man combination is too skilled and meshed too well a year ago to stay in the negatives for much longer.
In 65 minutes last season, the Murray, Harris, Barton, Millsap, Jokic five-man lineup outscored its opponent by 53 points.
“We’re all so talented, it’s easy to play off one another,” Barton said about the starting lineup. “We all have high basketball IQ’s, we all can shoot, we all can handle it, and we all can pass. When the whole five can do that it’s hard to guard and we kind of play off one another. I feel like the more we keep getting minutes together, we’ll be even more assertive and stop worrying about stepping on each other’s toes and worry about who’s doing this and who’s doing that. It will just come natural.”
Tuesday against the Clippers and Thursday against the Bulls, the Nuggets plan to play their regulars for all four quarters. Malone doesn’t want Denver’s opening night on Oct. 17 to be the first time his starters are logging 30-plus minutes.
Denver’s first five should get rolling in one of those two matchups. It’ll need to. Because lackluster performances like this one when the games start to count will again sink the Nuggets’ playoff hopes.
“The regular season starts in 12 days, and I don’t know what we are waiting for,” Malone said. “We only have two more preseason games. We just need a greater sense of urgency.”