Hours before Sunday’s pivotal Game 4, Nuggets coach Michael Malone asked assistant coach Andrew Munson who he felt the X-factor was going to be.
The team’s video coordinator put his chips on rookie Bones Hyland, who until Sunday’s coming-out party hadn’t had the same infectious impact on the series that he’d had on Denver’s second unit since assuming backup point guard responsibilities.
“You’re going with the rookie, huh?” Malone asked him.
In scoring 15 points, including three 3-pointers and dishing seven assists in Sunday’s 126-121 win over the Warriors, the rookie made good on the bet. His seven assists equaled his total output from the prior three games combined.
“I just told him in the locker room … he’s electric,” said point guard Monte Morris, who was commenting on Hyland’s three consecutive 3-pointers over 65 raucous seconds in the second quarter.
According to the play-by-play recap, each one of his Bizzy bombs was launched from at least 30 feet. Over the past 25 seasons, only Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard had ever connected from that deep on three 3-pointers during a playoff quarter, according to ESPN.
A shot Hyland had been taking since he was a kid playing on the blacktops of Wilmington, Del., Hyland said he had no idea how far behind the 3-point line he was shooting from.
“It just be the flick of the wrist,” he said. “… If I feel any little space, I’m letting it fly.”
Not that there was a question about his confidence, but Sunday’s showing should’ve underscored it.
Hyland spearheaded a 35-point bench effort that saw significant contributions from DeMarcus Cousins (10 points), JaMychal Green (seven) and Austin Rivers (five steals in 36 minutes). The best part of Hyland’s fearless performance was how much he seemed to relish the environment.
There was more than a little dancing and celebrating, not unlike the preening Golden State did over Games 1 and 2 in San Francisco.
“To see Bones Hyland embrace the atmosphere, the ambiance and not be scared of it, that was really fun to watch,” Malone said. “I had fun. … I was at peace all game regardless of the result because of how we were playing.”
And how the Nuggets played was loose, free and easy — a trickle-down of Hyland’s tempo. Hyland was irritated with himself for not attacking and playing aggressively throughout the first three games. Even as rookie he knew he could impact a game with his depth and shifty handles.
That manifested not just in his scoring, but in his playmaking, which led to two Nikola Jokic 3-pointers, an easy layup for Aaron Gordon and a crucial 3-pointer from Rivers with three minutes left in the third quarter. The shots were born of Hyland’s speed and quickness, a game-changer for the Nuggets if they’re to push the Warriors again in Game 5 in San Francisco.
“It seems like he just enjoys playing basketball and has fun,” Warriors’ star Steph Curry said after the loss. “Obviously, he deserved to have some fun with those three big shots. It got them a lot of separation, got them over the hump and got the crowd into it. We gotta take that away.”
Consider a rookie, in an elimination game, earning Curry’s attention on the scouting report. Coincidentally, the Hyland factor — the potential to burst into an open transition 3-pointer at a moment’s notice — is exactly what Curry and the Warriors had done to the Nuggets before Sunday’s win.
“You make your name in the playoffs,” Malone said of his rookie.
Regardless of Golden State’s star power, Morris said he had supreme confidence that Hyland wouldn’t back down.
“I’ll put my last dollar in the bank account on it,” Morris said.