After days of waiting and more than a dozen misses in a row, Will Barton finally seized his moment.
That it came in a 116-101 win over the Houston Rockets on Friday night made the sequence that much sweeter.
With consecutive 3-pointers late in the third quarter, Barton surpassed J.R. Smith to become the Nuggets’ all-time leading 3-point shooter with 769. Teammates and coaches rejoiced with him during a timeout shortly thereafter. The relief he felt — after missing 14 consecutive 3-point looks the prior two games — was palpable.
“Just who I am, where I come from, the knock that I had coming into the league was that I couldn’t shoot, and it was true at that time,” Barton said. “… I put in a lot of hours.”
Jamal Murray ended the night only 96 shy of Barton’s record, and while Barton said it’ll be Murray’s one day, he insisted he was going to enjoy the mark while it was his.
Barton, to steal a phrase he’d said in recent days, was now the greatest shooter in Nuggets history.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone said he met with Barton 1-on-1 and reminded him to just play his game amid the shooting struggles.
“I felt like the pressure of breaking the record was, kind of, getting to him,” Malone said. “… ‘If you play your game, it’s not a question of if you’re going to break it, Will. It’s just when.’”
Nuggets president Tim Connelly and GM Calvin Booth were in the back hallway waiting to congratulate Barton when he finally walked off the court.
But the Nuggets wouldn’t have won Friday night, handing Houston its 12th consecutive loss, without the remarkable play of DeMarcus Cousins. The veteran center started in place of Nikola Jokic, who missed the game due to a non-COVID illness.
The Nuggets, who improved to 37-26, didn’t skip a beat. Cousins was a force in the paint and from the perimeter. He registered a season-high 31 points on 10-of-14 shooting, including 3-of-4 from 3-point range. His nine rebounds, spliced with several bone-shivering screens, underscored how valuable he was without the Nuggets’ typical centerpiece available.
Outside of Rockets big man Christian Wood (22 points, 10 rebounds), Houston couldn’t contend with Denver’s size. There was no reprieve in the second unit, with JaMychal Green pacing the reserves with 14 points and nine rebounds.
All told, seven Nuggets finished in double figures.
When Cousins picked up his fourth foul barely a minute into the third quarter, the Nuggets immediately lost their size advantage. With their enforcer relegated to the bench, Denver stopped playing inside. Fortunately, it didn’t matter.
Aaron Gordon knocked down a couple of mid-range jumpers, Monte Morris followed suit, and before Barton’s big moment, he finally saw one drop from the baseline as well. That bucket preceded Barton’s back-to-back 3-pointers, which gave him the record he’d been chasing. Amid the moment, the Nuggets kept putting it on the lowly Rockets. By the time the 36-point quarter was over, Denver held a convincing 87-70 lead going into the fourth.
Malone was hoping the lessons learned from Wednesday’s ugly loss to Oklahoma City stayed with his guys.
“Hopefully our guys can go out there and just put forth the proper effort,” he said prior to Friday’s tip-off. “… I had a very honest film session (Thursday) showing all the areas that we struggled in.”
Following that film session, the message was that as a team fighting for seeding in the Western Conference, they couldn’t afford lapses like Wednesday’s. He told them that the mandate wasn’t to win out the rest of the schedule, but rather, at minimum, show up for every game.
The Nuggets had the right attitude for parts of the first half and built a 51-46 halftime lead as a result. Without Jokic, Cousins became the offensive anchor among the starters. And over the first two quarters, Cousins was the best player on the court.
He dumped in 14 points and snatched six rebounds to pace the starters. He was unselfish and aggressive, content being a playmaker for his teammates or lowering his shoulder in the paint.
Fellow starter Jeff Green had 12 points in the first half, as did JaMychal Green. The bench unit authored a 17-6 run to open the second quarter that featured frenetic defense and rim-rattling offense. Once again, Denver’s reserves made a marked impact on the night.