Nuggets Journal: Rested and recharged, Denver ready to “attack” stretch run

Monte Morris’ buzzer-beating 3-pointer against the Warriors sent the Nuggets into the All-Star break on a high.

Then their third win in a row, Morris’ game-winner was such a rush it overshadowed the fact that Will Barton hadn’t played a second of the fourth quarter. His closing minutes went to Austin Rivers (whose defense on Steph Curry was noteworthy) and Bryn Forbes (whose shot-making has added a new wrinkle to Denver’s bench).

Barton struggled on the night. He missed open looks and lacked his trademark burst. Eight nights later in Sacramento, following a much-needed break, Barton erupted for a season-high 31 points. His bounce, as evident by a couple of mighty dunks, was back.

During his break, Barton said he stayed in the gym every day.

“What the break did for me was mentally just re-focus,” he said.

Even though the Nuggets were rolling, and some might contend the All-Star break came at an inopportune time, Denver’s mainstays needed the pause.

“I don’t look (at it) like it’s just this season,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone, who watched his daughters play volleyball in Kansas City with the time off.

“I really feel when you look at our team, you have to look at the cumulative toll of the last three seasons going into this year,” he said.

From players to team staffers, everyone will tell you they’re exhausted.

Nikola Jokic needed it, too. As he was leaving the Chase Center that night more than an hour after dishing the pass to Morris, he conceded it would be nice to have a mental break. Of course, things didn’t exactly go smoothly for Jokic once he got to Cleveland, but at least for a week, he wasn’t tasked with carrying his beleaguered squad on a nightly basis.

Jokic was off completely on Monday before getting back in the gym Tuesday. He didn’t want to “surprise his body,” he said, once the games resumed at their feverish pace.

“When you have a chance to get away for a week, just unplug mentally, unplug physically and get much-needed rest – emotionally, mentally and physically – I think that’s invaluable,” Malone said.

Jokic re-charged with his family. Barton did the same in his comfort zone – the gym. Having won four in a row and six of their last seven entering Saturday’s game against the Kings, the Nuggets are beginning to surge. With only 23 games to go, the end of the regular season is approaching and things are, finally, starting to trend in Denver’s direction.

The Nuggets have the eighth-easiest remaining schedule in the NBA, according to tankathon.com, and 15 of those are at home. There are the potential looming returns of Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray, both waiting to infuse energy into the Nuggets’ already-potent offense while simultaneously alleviating some of the burden on Jokic and Barton. And then there’s the playoff race itself.

As of Saturday, the Nuggets were three games back of the fourth-seeded Utah Jazz. They trailed Dallas, the No. 5 seed, by just half a game in the standings. And it’s not like the Nuggets can relax with Minnesota trailing by only three games itself.

The Nuggets still have everything to play for, including seeding, matchups and a possible fruitful playoff run. It was the last thing Malone said to his team before they blasted the Kings on Thursday night.

“Each quarter, each half, each game matters, and I don’t want to ease into these (23) games,” Malone said. “I want to attack it.”

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