The Can didn’t quite pop last night, but perhaps for the first time all season, there was a palpable energy in the air.
It’s no secret that when the Denver Nuggets are in town, Pepsi Center has been a quieter place of late than it should be. The team is in the first year of rebuilding a culture that was badly damaged over the past two years. And while it’s on its way to doing just that, tallying 30-wins last season behind a coach who never had a grasp on his team and a troubled point guard who did his best to alienate anyone who ever liked him, plenty of Nuggets fans finally hit the point of saying “Thanks, but no thanks.”
The culture has unquestionably improved – the roster been purged of bad guys and the coach is tough yet likable – but the wins haven’t come easily. Entering December, the team had only managed six of them. Amidst a tumultuous Broncos season, a cloud of apathy was settling in over the Nuggets. Denver currently ranks last in NBA attendance with an average of just 13,420 fans per game.
But last night felt different. The 12,022 fans on hand witnessed the Nuggets’ tenth win on the season and the fourth in the last five games. It also marked Denver’s third win over Houston, making it a season sweep of last year’s Western Conference runner-up. There was a noticeable and certain satisfaction that came with owning the team where ex-Nugget Ty Lawson landed. When Lawson first entered the game, fans booed. When he exited, his meaningless line read 13 minutes, two points, two assists. For all intents and purposes, Lawson has done nothing on the season, especially against his old team.
Promising rookie Emmanuel Mudiay spent the night on the Nuggets bench nursing a sprained ankle. It’s unlikely that the Nuggets will be a playoff team this spring, and that’s not all bad. Lower expectations will allow Mudiay to develop, mistakes and all, in a patient environment. Second-year guard Gary Harris turned in a career-high 21 points and held Houston’s James Harden to 24 points (and just six free throw attempts).
The play that shook The Can, however, arrived with seven minutes remaining in the second quarter, compliments of Will Barton.
The 24-year-old Barton caught the ball along the baseline, offered a head fake that sent Trevor Ariza flying into the Nuggets bench, and then glided toward the lane. He exploded in the air and threw down a monster dunk that posterized Houston big man Donatas Motiejunas. The 6-foot-6, 175-pound (generously) Barton drew the foul and made the 230-pound, seven-footer look like a helpless child.
And the crowd erupted. It’s a sound that’s been few and far between in the Nuggets’ recent past.
Barton has been more than just high-flying dunks, however. He’s been the picture of consistency for the Nuggets. He’s is averaging 14.7 points per game, good for second on the team. (Danilo Gallinari leads the Nuggets with 17.6, but does so while playing nearly seven more minutes per night.) Barton also adds 5.8 rebounds (fifth on the Nuggets) and 1.4 steals (first). His ability to get to, and finish at, the rim is easily the best on the team. While still early in the season, Barton should be highly considered for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award. If there’s a truly exciting player to watch on the Nuggets this season, it’s Barton.
The old television ads that used to play on Denver’s Channel 2 said, “Den-ver Nug-gets… so exciting.” That campaign, or at least it’s push, needs to return. The Nuggets rebuilding project is underway, and last night it was actually pretty exciting.