Will Barton’s injury return lone Nuggets positive from Game 2 blowout loss vs. Suns

Will Barton gathered the basketball, jumped from beneath the rim, and throttled a two-handed jam for his welcome back Nuggets moment.

“It felt good to be back out there,” he said.

Barton made his debut in the postseason Wednesday night for Game 2 in Phoenix after missing the past seven weeks with a hamstring injury. He scored 10 points on 50% shooting from the floor despite a significant minutes-restriction (15:49).

Yet Barton couldn’t relish his return.

Not after a 123-98 Suns shellacking that put Denver in a 0-2 series hole. Nuggets coach Michael Malone called Barton the “only silver lining to a really rough night.”

“I just told our players: It’s embarrassing that a guy that hasn’t been able to play for seven weeks goes out there leaving it all on the line,” Malone said. “And I don’t think anybody else did.”

Barton, in his ninth NBA season, was a critical component to the Nuggets’ early success this season. He made 52 regular-season starts and averaged 12.7 points and arguably was the team’s best perimeter defender. Everything changed on April 23, on the road at Golden State, when Barton awkwardly pulled up while driving to the basket.

On Wednesday night, Barton returned unsure how his hamstring might respond.

“The medical staff has been doing a great job of helping me get back on the court and getting me to this point,” Barton said. “I had to trust the plan for me. At this point, I don’t know until I get out there and actually do it (to see) how long I can play.”

Barton quickly erased any concerns in Game 2.

He scored Denver’s first 3-pointer after the team started 0-for-10 from behind the arc. He chased down Suns’ power forward Cameron Johnson in transition and pinned his layup attempt on the backboard. He provided three assists in short order. 

Barton, much to his own dismay, was pulled from the game after the third quarter as Phoenix’s lead ballooned to 20 points. “He hated me when I took him out because he reached his minutes’ restrictions,” Malone said. ” I understand that.”

Barton kept things in perspective, though, when discussing his comeback with reporters.

“A hamstring is nothing to play with. One of the trickiest injuries you could have,” he said.  “I’ve been out a month and some change. So, anytime you get back to playing basketball, and then playoff intensity, I’m at a high risk — just being honest. Workouts, playing three-on-three and one-on-one, and all that is good. But nothing can replace actual game reps and the intensity of playoff basketball. It is a risk but I was out there playing tonight.

“I’ve decided to do that, so it’s on me. I know what I’m up against. At this point, I’ve got to try to block that out. … Whatever’s in me, I have to give that, or just don’t play.”

Barton’s determination inspired teammates.

“Especially when hamstrings are something that even when it’s healed, you kind of need a little bit more time to get back that confidence,” Nikola Jokic said. “(Barton) showed some other guys that if you are hurt or whatever, you can fight through.”

The Nuggets are desperate to flip series momentum in Game 3 on Friday night at Ball Arena.

Barton provided the blueprint.

“Setting the tone from the beginning. Hitting them first,” Barton said of what’s necessary. “Hustle, fly around, get those 50-50 balls — do whatever. Because it’s basically do-or-die. We’ve got to come out from the jump ready to play and ready to win.”


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