Bones Hyland had a taste, and then he wanted some more.
One possession after he’d buried a crucial 3-pointer with 2:16 remaining in Saturday’s gripping win over the Raptors, Hyland had the itch to hoist again.
Of course he did. Any rookie with the audacity to drain the first one – a 29-foot, no-hesitation bomb off an assist from the reigning MVP – would naturally want another sip.
Asked about his temptation less than an hour after Nikola Jokic’s game-saving block sealed Denver’s 110-109 win over the Raptors, Hyland burst out laughing. His predisposition was that obvious.
“Bones is like me, he’d be an awful poker player,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone, who wasn’t responding directly to that moment but was speaking to Hyland’s demeanor nonetheless.
Recognizing time (1:40 remaining) and score (106-103, Denver), Hyland didn’t take the shot he was wired to launch. Instead, he fed the ball inside to Jokic, who had a field day against Toronto’s diminutive frontcourt. Jokic scored off a put-back, and the Nuggets were suddenly up two possessions on the road against the hottest team in the NBA, having played in Boston the night before.
Malone admitted after Friday night’s loss to the Celtics that he should’ve put Hyland back in the game in the fourth quarter rather than riding with Facundo Campazzo. If nothing else, the experience would’ve been invaluable for the rookie.
But granting Hyland minutes based solely on his potential to grow would be selling the precocious rookie short. Hyland played well in both games. Saturday, he earned the chance to close.
During a timeout with 2:43 remaining, Malone designed a play where he expected the Raptors to double-team Jokic, thus freeing up Hyland from the perimeter. Malone said he wanted Jokic’s first outlet to be Hyland, even though at that point, he was just 2 of 8 from the 3-point line.
“The young man’s not scared,” Malone said, imbuing confidence in a rookie who doesn’t lack it.
Hyland stepped into his 3-pointer and drained it, giving him 11 points, four rebounds and four assists on the night.
“I want to be out there, I want to take those big shots,” he said. “That’s the type of player I am.”
Even when he was struggling earlier in the game, and Malone had pulled him aside to keep encouraging those shots, Hyland kept reiterating a thought.
“I know I’m gonna hit a big-time shot tonight,” he said.
The double-team Toronto had sent toward Jokic was, yes, a sign of respect to the MVP, Hyland told himself, but also a sign of disrespect toward himself.
Hyland made them pay.
While he’s still learning the nuances of the game – how to throw an entry pass, for example, or how to avoid getting baited into a shooting foul, for another – Hyland’s development has been swift. In the nine games since he took over the backup point guard job, Denver’s bench has scored the fifth-most points in the league (43.6 per game).
Thrust into the starting lineup the last two games due to Monte Morris’ concussion, Hyland proved game for the challenge. He even earned Jokic’s tacit approval.
“I didn’t feel like it’s something new, or we didn’t feel weird out there,” said Jokic, which constitutes a significant compliment for the rookie.
Malone has challenged Hyland to temper his highs and weather his lows as he matures, but the blue-collar coach can’t help but acknowledge his unique quickness, rare playmaking and his unyielding confidence.
Asked what was realistic to expect of Hyland down the stretch this season, Malone was honest as always.
“I don’t like to ever put limitations on anybody,” he said.