DENVER (The Sports Xchange) – As the postgame media crowded around Will Barton’s locker, Denver coach Michael Malone walked by and shouted, “They weren’t there last game! The Thrill is back!”
He is, and the Nuggets are happier for it.
Barton broke out of a slump to score 22 points, Jamal Murray also had 22, Nikola Jokic added 18 points and nine rebounds, and the Denver Nuggets beat the Los Angeles Lakers 129-101 on Monday night.
Danilo Gallinari also scored 18 points, and Mason Plumlee had 15 points and 10 rebounds for the Nuggets.
Denver (32-35) was without Wilson Chandler (groin), Kenneth Faried (back) and Darrell Arthur (left knee soreness) but still easily won its third consecutive game to pad its lead in the race for the last Western Conference playoff berth.
“We know what we’re up against, we’re trying to make that push,” Barton said.
Barton’s bounce-back game helped Denver beat the struggling Lakers (20-47), who lost for the 10th time in 11 games. Los Angeles coach Luke Walton changed his starting lineup for the second straight game, inserting Jordan Clarkson as the starting point guard and bringing D’Angelo Russell off the bench.
Walton said before the game it wasn’t a reflection of Russell’s play, only that he wanted to see “some other looks” after the Lakers lost seven of the first eight games coming out of the All-Star break. He didn’t like what he saw of his team’s effort Monday on the second game of a back-to-back.
“For young guys, effort shouldn’t be a problem. They shouldn’t get tired,” Walton said. “They should be thrilled to be on the court. (The Nuggets are) playing great, they’re scoring the heck out of the ball, maybe we lose the game anyway, but the fact that we didn’t as a team, as a group, compete at a certain level, we didn’t give ourselves a chance, that’s what’s frustrating to me.”
Walton pointed out the one positive was the play of rookie center Ivica Zubac, who had a career-high 25 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. Clarkson finished with 19 points.
Zubac was disappointed despite his big night.
“We didn’t compete. We weren’t ready. It’s a shame for our team,” he said. “We should be ashamed, and the next game we have to go as hard as we can.”
The Nuggets did what they had to do to stay ahead in the race for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. They are two games up on the Portland Trail Blazers but have a tough upcoming schedule. They will face the Los Angeles Clippers, the Houston Rockets (twice) and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the next nine days.
The pending string of games made taking care of the Lakers that much more important, and the Nuggets did it with a big second quarter. After the Lakers got within 39-31, Denver went on a 22-2 run to lead by 28.
Barton, who failed to score in double digits in his previous five games, scored 11 points in the second quarter. He seemed to have found his game after a talk with Malone.
“It helped me a lot,” Barton said. “I have trust in my coaching staff, they believe in me, they tell me I’m a big part of this team and they need me to play well; it does a lot to my confidence.
“I was overthinking, I was playing kind of a new role, kind of playing the point and overthinking, ‘Should I take this shot, should I not,’ instead of being myself. … Coming out tonight, I wanted to be aggressive.”
He was 6 of 8 from the field in the first half, hitting three 3-pointers. Barton finished 7 of 12 from the floor, 4 of 6 from 3-point range.
“We needed that,” Malone said. “Since the break, he just hasn’t found his groove, and to see him shoot the ball as well as he did from three, to get 22 points and six assists off the bench, that was fantastic.”
The Nuggets led 67-43 at halftime and increased the lead to 32 in the third quarter. The Lakers ended the third quarter on a 17-7 run to get within 93-76, but Denver scored the first 11 points of the fourth to pull away.
NOTES: Nuggets coach Michael Malone said F Wilson Chandler had an MRI done on his right groin, and it didn’t reveal anything “too severe.” He said Chandler is experiencing pain and discomfort, and the hope is having the next two days off will give him a chance to play Thursday against the Clippers. … Lakers PG Jordan Clarkson is averaging 19.2 points and 3.3 assists in nine games since the All-Star break. … The Lakers play Wednesday at Houston.