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Will Barton goes vintage: How the do-it-all guard ignited the Nuggets' bench in Phoenix

Harrison Wind Avatar
October 21, 2021

Will Barton didn’t want to reveal too much.

Forty eight hours before the Nuggets were set to open their season against the team that swept them in the playoffs just four months ago, Barton was asked about the Suns getting slotted as Denver’s opening night opponent.

“I’m looking forward to it. I’ll just say that. Obviously you lose to a team in the playoffs, get swept on your home floor, and that’s your opening game,” Barton said. “If you’re not looking forward to that, then I dont know if you’re a competitor. And I’m a competitor.”

“We’ve talked about it a little bit. You already know.”

It wasn’t really about what Barton said earlier this week regarding Phoenix. It was more so about the look in his eye. You could tell he wanted this game. The anguish from last season’s quick second-round exit was still there.

Barton was a force in the Nuggets’ 110-98 opening night win over the same Suns team that embarrassed Denver back in June, tallying 20 points on a clean 8-14 shooting (4-8 from 3-point range), 6 rebounds, 5 assists to zero turnovers and one steal. He was one of several starters who turned in quality nights. Aaron Gordon chipped in 12 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists and one momentum-building block. Nikola Jokic was his usual self, finishing with 27 points and 13 rebounds. Michael Porter Jr. scored 15 points and tied his career-high with five assists.

But the story from Game 1 had to do with Denver’s second unit and the halftime adjustment Michael Malone made that changed the dynamic of his struggling bench.

Like they were in the preseason, the Nuggets’ second unit was an eyesore throughout the first half. Over the back half of the first quarter, Denver’s five-man bench lineup featuring Facu Campazzo, Austin Rivers, PJ Dozier, JaMychal Green and Jeff Green quickly surrendered the nine-point they were handed by the Nuggets’ starters. In six minutes of playing time, that lineup got outscored 23-8 (-15).

Malone then adjusted. He exiled Rivers from the rotation after halftime and staggered Porter and Barton with the second unit. The result was exactly what he was searching for. Denver’s bench found a rhythm with Porter and Barton acting as two individual offensive hubs that the second unit could fall back on.

A key sequence ensued to open the fourth with Barton playing alongside the bench. Barton found Jeff Green on back-to-back triples which ignited an 11-5 Nuggets run. Denver’s starters, which were dominant in the win, sealed the victory from there.

Wednesday night was a vintage Barton performance and a microcosm of his Nuggets career. Barton has worn several different hats since arriving in Denver in 2015. He averaged almost 29 minutes off the bench in 2015-16. He started 19 games in 2016-17 and then 40 games in 2017-18, splitting time between shooting guard and small forward. Over the back half of that season, Barton also played backup point guard behind Jamal Murray and ran Denver’s second unit. The 30-year-old has been a full-time starter for the last three seasons, shifting between small forward and shooting guard.

Throughout Denver’s season opener, Barton gelled with a starting lineup that outscored the Suns by 19 points in the 27 minutes that they spent on the floor. He then fortified the Nuggets’ bench in the second half.

“The ball’s going to be in my hands more, so it’s just about making the right decision,” Barton said about playing with the bench. “I know I have to be more aggressive, get shots off, and sometimes be aggressive to get open shots for my teammates. I tried to balance that tonight. In the second half, coach told me he was going to play me more with the bench to try and get us rolling and give us a little spark. I knew I had to turn my aggressiveness up a little bit.”

Malone said postgame that he’s not planning to abandon the five-man all-bench lineup after one poor outing. Even after a disastrous first half, he wants that group to build a chemistry and log steady minutes together. But it should and likely will continue to have a short leash. It nearly cost Denver its opener. I’d expect to see Barton and Porter spend significant minutes with the second unit moving forward if that group continues to struggle.

Barton’s season opening statement also served as a reminder of exactly what transpired in the Nuggets and Suns second-round series last season. After a 122-105 series-opening defeat, Barton returned from a serious hamstring injury and scored 10 points in 16 minutes off the bench in Game 2. In Game 3, Barton came off the bench again and scored 14 points to go with 7 rebounds and 3 assists. He returned to the starting lineup in Game 4 and scored a team-high 25 points.

Barton couldn’t lift Denver to a win, but the Nuggets played the Suns to a draw in his 83 total minutes in Games 2-4.

It was a signal of just how much Barton means to Denver’s success, just like Wednesday night was. Without Jamal Murray, the Nuggets will require these types of contributions from Barton where he impacts the game on several different levels, within several different lineups and in several different roles.

It’s nothing new for the longest-tenured Nugget.

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