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Barton gives Denver thrills, but wins still to come

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TRIBUNE PHOTO: DAVID BLAIR - Will Barton slams home two of his game-high 31 points Wednesday night at Moda Center, where Barton and the Denver Nuggets lost 110-103 to the Trail Blazers.Portland gave him his nickname, “The People’s Champ,” but he’s earned it in Denver.

Fourth-year guard/forward Will “The Thrill” Barton, traded from the Trail Blazers to the Denver Nuggets on Feb. 19, scored 31 points off the bench on 12-of-22 shooting in Denver’s 110-103 loss to the Blazers on Wednesday. But the outburst is nothing new for him.

Barton has emerged as an NBA Sixth Man of the Year candidate, averaging 16.7 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 33 games — after getting 3.8 points, 1.8 rebounds and 0.8 assists over two-plus seasons with the Blazers.

Barton said “opportunity” has been key to his strong start to the season.

“The organization and the coaching staff trusts me, my teammates believe in me and help me, and everybody supports me and is behind me,” said Barton, who has scored 20 or more points in six of his last 13 games.

Before tip-off at Moda Center, Barton was all smiles as he warmed up and interacted with former teammates, coaches and various members of the media and Blazers organization.

“It feels good to be here,” Barton said. “Me and ‘Dame’ [Damian Lillard] came into the league together, so we’re brothers for life, and just to see those guys and be able to talk and joke with them again is always a good time.”

Barton voiced just one goal before the game: “Get a win.”

But the Nuggets couldn’t pull off a comeback victory, so he called the result “bittersweet.”

“I wanted to get the win really bad, because we’re on a losing streak,” Barton said. “We just came up short, so it really doesn’t matter how I played if we didn’t get the win.”

The 6-6 Barton fell a point shy of tying his career-high of 32, set versus New Orleans on Dec. 20, when he scored 18 points in the fourth quarter. He also grabbed 10 rebounds and dished out six assists against the Pelicans, joining former Blazer Clyde Drexler as one of six players in NBA history to record 32 or more points, 10 or more rebounds, and six or more assists as a reserve.

Portland coach Terry Stotts said he admires Barton’s improvement.

“During his rookie year, he had a lot to learn,” Stotts said. “The strides he made in Year 2 as a player, as a person and as a professional was good to see. He really matured, both on and off the floor. I’d like to think the success he’s having now is in part because of the hard work he put in while he was here.

“He looks very comfortable out there, playing with a lot of confidence. His 3 looks good. Will has put in a lot of time. He’s a gym rat, and he spends a lot of time in the gym getting better, and it’s showing.”

Denver coach Michael Malone said Barton is “having a tremendous season” for the Nuggets.

“Will has been terrific. He’s a hard worker and has a true passion for the game, which we all love,” Malone said. “He plays with the same mindset, the same approach every night. He’s an attack player. He makes things happen.”

While Barton’s numbers have been terrific, Malone wishes his team was winning more games during the 24-year-old’s impressive run. The Nuggets are 12-21.

“It would even be that much sweeter,” Malone said. “But that day will come. I have no doubt in my mind it will.”