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The Sixth Man: Denver’s three unsung heroes who could swing the series

Who is going to take the load off Jokic’s shoulders?

Denver Nuggets v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The Denver Nuggets have quite the test in the first round of the 2022 NBA playoffs. They draw the Golden State Warriors, who hold the most championship pedigree among the Western Conference field. There are some injury uncertainties as we head into this series. The Warriors revealed a report stating Steph Curry is making “good progress” in his recovery, but the timetable for his return is still uncertain. That report also announced Curry began “individual on-court activities” last week and that they are hopeful he returns to practice this week.

As for Denver’s injury concerns, they are not as hopeful. The Nuggets are allowing Murray and his camp to determine if he is truly ready for a comeback this season. However, since he did not participate in any game action during the season, there are still many trust factors in that knee he still may need to overcome. Michael Porter Jr. suffered a “minor setback” during his rehab process, so he will most likely be unavailable throughout the rest of this season.

Both teams struggled with injuries during the season, but it looks like Golden State will have the healthier lineup. In my opinion, I think all reports on the Curry injury are positive, so I think he will make a return at some point during this series. That will clearly create more of an uphill battle for Denver, but they do have confidence against this Warrior group.

The Nuggets won three of the four matchups between the two, including a Monte Morris game-winning triple with Curry in the lineup. Although their success may carry forward some confidence, Denver has not faced a Warrior’s lineup with Draymond Green this season. That being said, Denver’s role players will play a massive factor and could decide the outcome of this series.

We expect Nikola Jokic to continue to provide MVP production and his running mate Aaron Gordon to provide a punch at both ends, but the Nuggets need a balanced effort from everybody to win this series. The Warriors might collapse the paint to prevent Jokic from dominating that area, which forces role players to capitalize on their open looks. If the Nuggets can open the floor with consistent perimeter production, cutters will have more room, Jokic can pick and choose his spots to command the offense, and Gordon will have more room at the rim. That is why Monte Morris, Will Barton, and Bones Hyland can be the silent heroes of Denver’s success.

Big Monte

Big game Tae will have to put on a significant display if the Nuggets are to steal this series. He has fared well against the Warriors, averaging 16.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 4.7 assists this season. He has shot over 50% from the field in all three matchups, hit at least two threes, and has not surpassed one turnover in each contest. He will most likely be given some heavy minutes in this series because he is secure with the basketball and has provided clutch moments against Golden State.

Monte is no stranger to playoff basketball either. He has logged 43 playoff games and will be tasked with a similar role to last year’s playoff scenario. Without Jamal Murray, Morris played in 10 playoff games last year. He averaged about 28 minutes a night, 13.7 points, and 5.5 assists on 43% shooting and 40% from three. Although you would like to see that field goal percentage rise a little more this postseason, those are solid numbers, and if he can stay around that 13-15 PPG on 40% from three, he will be doing his job.

More specifically, that two-man game between him and Jokic will be critical. It is where many actions begin in this offense, but it is also the preferred choice in crunch time. Without the effectiveness of this action, the Warriors will squeeze the paint, which can hinder Denver’s cutters and Jokic’s opportunities in the post. It also creates a critical responsibility for Denver’s perimeter players to make open shots. The Warriors might dare Denver to shoot, and if they can’t capitalize, there will be long nights for Denver.

Another reason why Monte is essential in this series is that he is a road Warrior and a second-half producer. This season, he averages more points and assists while shooting over 4% better from the field on the road. He also provides a slightly better punch in the second half of road games. He shoots about 6% better from the field and 2% better from three. His scoring numbers during the second half improved all season. He began the year averaging about 4-5 PPG during the second half and ended the season averaging 7.3 PPG on 40% shooting from three.

When you look at this Denver rotation, ask yourself, “Who do I trust to take the last shot besides Jokic.” We have seen Aaron Gordon make a last-second shot this season, and Barton has produced late in games as well, but my answer is Monte. Late in the game, when the pressure is at its highest, I want a Morris-Jokic two-man game. I trust in Monte’s ball security and the fact he will make the right play when it matters the most. When he is at his best, everybody else benefits, and if that is the case in this series, the Nuggets will be a high-powered offensive unit.

Willy Buckets

The Warriors do not want Will to turn into the Thrill because if he does, the Nuggets have a guy who can score from anywhere on the court. The issue for Denver fans is part of “the Thrill” is having no clue when it may arrive. Barton was Denver’s third-leading scorer at 14.7 PPG on 44% from the field and 36.5% from three. His shooting percentages have been sporadic all season, but his three-point stroke in April was a good sign. He shot 44.4% from three on nearly seven attempts per game. The veteran Barton should receive enough rest to get his legs under him to begin this series, so pay attention to his activity early.

He is also another veteran playoff performer for Denver. He has 24 playoff games under his belt, and although he only played in three playoff games last year, he averaged 16.3 PPG, which would be critical production this series. Hovering around that 15 PPG mark for guys like Morris, Barton, and Gordon will be needed because the starters have to keep up with Golden State’s offense.

Passing is an underrated aspect to Barton’s game and something that can make life easier for Denver. He averaged 3.9 assists this year, which is the second-best mark of his career. What creates his playmaking abilities and his overall effectiveness is early drives to the basket.

When Barton is aggressive towards the rim early, it often results in layups or drive-and-kick opportunities. When he can obtain easy layups, it seems to lock in his stroke from the perimeter throughout the game. When his shot is falling, the world is his oyster. If the paint is collapsed, he can drive, kick, and relocate to another spot for an open shot. If defenders are glued to the perimeter, he can take it to the rack for an easy layup or a dish to Joker.

Barton is also one of Denver’s most clutch free throw shooters throughout his time in Denver. Free throws can be a great way to slow down a unit like Golden State, and the Nuggets have great trust in Barton when he is at the line in crunch time. For the majority of this team, but especially Barton, success begins by attacking the basket. If we see Will aggressive and efficient at the rim, Will will turn into the Thrill.

Bones Hyland

In his rookie season, he averaged 10.1 points, 2.8 assists, and 2.7 rebounds per game. That won’t get him Rookie of the Year, but it will earn him crucial playoff minutes. Since the All-Star break, he has played inspired basketball and is one of Denver’s electric pieces. He is a human microwave off the bench. He can knock down three three’s in one minute, which can completely flip momentum in Denver’s favor. Ever since they switched him to that true point guard role off the bench, he seems much more comfortable and confident in his position.

He is averaging 12.8 points and 4.3 assists on 40% shooting from three since the All-Star break. His passing has also been a revelation. Since his 2.6 assists per game in February, he doubled that in March and finished April with 5.6 assists in five games. He also produced a significant plus/minus number of 7.2, and if he can share anywhere near that number in the playoffs, that means he has that bench unit operating on all cylinders.

There is one aspect to his game that I think will reign supreme in this series. His ability to play fast. When Bones is in the game, the Nuggets are pushing the ball up the floor with a purpose. He enhances their transition game in multiple phases. His speed allows him to force transition defenders to choose between him and his nearest teammate. This gives him the opportunity for a layup or pass/lob to his teammates. He can also pass it early in transition and relocate for an open three.

The Nuggets need to take advantage of easy baskets and those fast-break opportunities can be the best way to do so. Playing in transition often means a turnover or a missed shot, so it helps the confidence of the defense, and it allows the offense to take advantage of mismatches. Bones plays a huge role in this area because he is the engine behind these transition baskets. His speed can fatigue opponents, and since he is so young, he does not run out of gas often. When he utilizes his speed and effectiveness from three, he can strike fear in the opposition.