SALT LAKE CITY – There were mixed, pointed and honest feelings emanating from the visitor’s locker room in Utah Tuesday night where the Nuggets’ postseason picture became clearer.
There was momentary relief and excitement after Gary Harris and Torrey Craig huddled around this reporter’s phone to watch the thrilling end of Houston at Oklahoma City. When the Thunder’s Paul George buried a 3-pointer from the corner with one second left to put the Thunder up 112-111, Nuggets forward Paul Millsap celebrated, and Harris, who heard the commotion, came over to watch Houston’s final possession.
Cameramen waited patiently for their postgame interviews, cognizant that the outcome of the Thunder-Rockets would determine the mood.
MVP candidate James Harden collected the pass, George flew by him at the top of the key as he tried to recover and the Rockets’ superstar hit front rim as the Thunder – and the few Nuggets in the locker room – celebrated.
Not that any of the minute details were discernible on the small screen of my IPhone X.
What was clear was that the Rockets’ loss had partially made up for the Nuggets’ underwhelming showing in Utah, where Denver has now lost nine consecutive times. Houston’s loss gave the Nuggets control again; a win Wednesday at home against Minnesota gives Denver the No. 2 seed.
If everything else breaks for the Nuggets – the Trail Blazers won on a buzzer-beater to down the Lakers and have one game left against the Kings – Denver could find itself the No. 2 seed, followed by the Blazers at No. 3 and the Rockets at No. 4. All the hand-wringing about Sunday’s perplexing loss to Portland would likely fall by the wayside.
But inside a locker room where players queried reporters about potential seeding and scenarios, there was one slightly more subdued and sober voice.
It was Will Barton, who while happy with the outcome of the Rockets-Thunder game, took a more measured, seasoned tone in the immediate aftermath of Denver’s 118-108 loss.
“To me, (playing well) is more important than anything because like I said, you’ve seen teams in previous years fight for seeds and thought that was going to do something for them and they lost,” said Barton, after taking just three shots in 20-plus minutes and not scoring. “I don’t feel like we’re at any liberty to be trying to pick who we’re playing against or pick the seed because if we go out there and we’re not playing the right way, anybody can beat us. But if we’re playing the right way, we can beat anybody.”
Barton’s no sucker. He wasn’t going to be lulled into any false sense of security just because the Rockets lost, potentially giving the Nuggets a favorable matchup.
“Do you want homecourt advantage?” he continued, “Of course you do. At this point right now, we know the playoff teams. It doesn’t matter, it’s going to be tough regardless. This is the playoffs. You think you’re just gonna go in there, ‘Hey, I want to play those guys.’ You think they’re gonna come out and ‘They wanted to play us, so we’re going to lay down.’ No, it doesn’t go that way.”
Barton, a veteran of just seven playoff games when he was with Portland during the 2014 playoffs, said he would lend advice about what to expect in the playoffs to anyone who asked, but he added a cautionary line.
“I try to lend my advice but we’re going to have to go through some things,” Barton said.
The Nuggets were far from their best Tuesday night. Their offense was thrown out of whack as a result of Nikola Jokic, their bedrock facilitator, fouling out in just 16 minutes with just 2 points. Millsap (5 points on 1-of-7 shooting) wasn’t much better. The only effective frontcourt player was Mason Plumlee, who flirted with a triple-double as a result of Joker’s foul trouble.
Interestingly, it was Jamal Murray (22 points) and reserve guards Monte Morris (22) and Malik Beasley (25), who collectively have zero playoff experience, who kept the Nuggets competitive.
It was under that backdrop that Barton was asked whether the Nuggets were prepared for the postseason.
“I don’t know,” Barton said. “We’re going to find out when it starts. Only thing we can do is try to close this thing out right against Minnesota tomorrow and have some type of positive momentum going in. But we won’t know until it starts. Because you’ve watched the league, I’ve seen teams go into the playoffs on winning streaks and get swept. I’ve seen teams looking like it’s the end of the world and go out and win the first round. We’re not going to know until we find out.”