Nuggets fans have been down this road before.
As George Karl’s squad put the finishing touches on a record-setting season on Wednesday, throngs of blue and gold-clad fans loudly filed out of the Pepsi Center, breaking the chill of the latest freak snowstorm with chants and shouts of the playoffs. The air held an eerie sense of excitement, yet was hampered by a degree of worry, reflective of the large snowflakes dropping from the sky.
Another year, another playoff appearance in the city of Denver, where postseason berths have become nearly as automatic as Lindsay Lohan returning to rehab. But looming on the horizon is the dreaded first round, and in perfect, snakebitten fashion, injuries have begun to mount on one of the league’s most overlooked teams at a very inopportune time. Danilo Gallinari is out for the year with a torn ACL, Kenneth Faried’s status is clouded by a sprained ankle, and Ty Lawson recently returned from a nagging torn plantar fascia.
Most of all, the first stanza of the NBA playoffs has been a proverbial minefield for the Nuggets. Denver may own home court advantage, but the shortcomings of seasons’ past linger among the Pepsi Center like the raining boos of Carmelo Anthony’s homecoming. The team has appeared in the postseason for a decade straight, but has escaped the first round only once. Some of the series were routs, and a handful of exits carried deep embarrassment.
But the 2013 Nuggets are unlike any other to take the floor in the Mile High City. Many will argue that the 2009 squad, headlined by Melo, Chauncey Billups and the rest of the “Thuggets,” are the best product to date. However, the pundits continuously rely on the “starless” factor to back up their claim, and the Nugs' postseason aspirations are supposedly doomed without a true go-to guy.
Unfortunately, such is the state of the NBA, a red carpet league that highlights its flashy stars and manufactured dunks. It’s a shame that ESPN would rather replay Miami’s Harlem Shake video than delve into Denver’s title hopes. After all, the Nuggets’ electric, run and gun style of play arguably provides the purest, most entertaining form of basketball in the league.
Many analysts acknowledge Denver will likely shed the first-round albatross in 2013, but it won’t be without a high degree of difficulty. Ian Thomsen of SI.com tabbed the Nuggets as the most vulnerable top seed and basically writes them off in a second round matchup against the Spurs. Chris Mannix predicts Denver to fall victim to an upset. Three of five ESPN figures predict the Nugs to prevail in a do-or-die seventh game (the other two have the Nuggets in five and six games), citing a shaky frontcourt, inability to close out games, and the danger of sharpshooter Stephen Curry. Denver’s only saving grace is its dominance at home.
Respect? The Nugs won’t get much of it here. Superstars won’t play here, and we’ll never win a championship here, right, Ty Lawson?
"Why would I buy into that? I believe that we can win a championship," Lawson said Wednesday, when asked the question by Mark Kiszla of The Denver Post.
Lawson isn’t the type to spout off, emotion be damned. Earlier this month, he claimed he and his ‘mates could beat the Miami Heat as well. Oddly enough, that’s about the only time the Nuggets have ever received a headline being mentioned as a perennial title contender. No matter how great the season, this team is permanently mired in relative obscurity, a best kept secret of sorts, since apparently the only thing in Denver is sheep.
“It’s just the nature of the game sometimes, being in a small market,’’ said newcomer Andre Iguodala, the only player on the roster with an All-Star Game appearance. “That can help you sometimes. It keeps you hungry … We’re capable of beating anybody.’’
The deeper you look into the Nuggets, the more you realize how truly dangerous this team is. Ty Lawson and Wilson Chandler have both been phenomenal since the All-Star Break. Kosta Koufos is playing the best basketball of his career. Andre Iguodala is a jack-of-all-trades asset, a bona fide stat sheet stuffer. Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee are dynamic, athletic freaks who will give headaches to just about any frontcourt in the league. Corey Brewer is capable of being a big time contributor off the bench. Andre Miller is the veteran glue that keeps the team together. The list goes on and on.
"I'm pretty confident," Lawson said. "We've played all the top teams pretty well, and we've got a lot of wins against them. I feel confident that we can at least get past the first round and get into the second. From there, it's anybody's game."
Many of Lawson’s fans would agree, and not out of loyalty or bias. This group is truly special. How many teams can lose a player of Gallinari’s caliber and hardly miss a beat?
George Karl, for one, has grown weary of the accusations against his team. “I’ll be honest with you, I’m getting too old to talk with (the media) all the time… It seems like we get criticized sometimes for being a good team. It just drives me crazy a little bit… Whatever you want to pick. We’re not a top-10 defensive team. We’re too young. Whatever you want to say. We don’t have a closer.’’
The result? The Nuggets are an underdog. Not necessarily against the Golden State Warriors, but against the perceived big dogs of the league, even though the Nugs posted a spotless 12-0 home record against playoff-qualifying Western Conference teams.
Other pundits will single out a questionable 19-22 road record. The problem? The Nugs were sent on a death march at the beginning of the season, with 22 of the team’s first 32 games on the road. Denver survived, and proceeded to go on a staggering 40-10 tear to complete the season. 23 of those victories are part of the current home winning streak, where the Nugs haven’t lost since President Obama was sworn in for a second term.
Yet these guys are underdogs?
“I definitely like it,” said Karl, with a somewhat sinister edge to his voice.
“I like being under the radar,” echoed Lawson. “It’s been that way since I got here (in 2009).”
It’s not going to be that way for much longer. Golden State is a solid team and is spearheaded by record-setting shooter Stephen Curry. However, Denver’s depth and athleticism should hold off the inexperienced Warriors, who are making just its second postseason trip since 1994. After passing a first round littered with the failures of previous seasons, the Nuggets will be awarded with a second-round matchup that will have its fanbase giddy.
The Spurs and Lakers have derailed Denver’s postseason hopes time and time again, and the slightest mention of them around Pepsi Center makes mouths snarl. The two playoff-hardened teams have dispatched the Nugs five times in the past nine years. Amazingly, Denver sports an unworldly 1-11 combined series record against the two giants, with the only victory coming at San Antonio’s expense in 1985.
Revenge is a dish best served cold. And after the Spurs likely outlast the Kobe-less Lakers in their showdown, the Nuggets will show no mercy on a team that has haunted its dreams for nearly a generation. The ancient Spurs possess more experience than anybody, but Denver’s speed and tenacity will be sure to add lines to Tim Duncan’s forehead and expedite Manu Ginobili’s glaring bald spot.
Thus, in liberating fashion, the Nugs will down the Spurs and propel into a collision course with Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Finals.
The Thunder have been widely praised as the cream of the crop in the west and arguably the only opponent worthy of being on the same court as LeBron and the Heat. However, the Nuggets won three of four contests against the defending conference champs, with one win coming on the end of demanding, back-to-back set of road games. Can the Nuggets seriously beat the Thunder in a playoff series? The critics will say no, but if the writing on the wall holds true, the Nugs have as good of a chance as anybody. And Rocky’s security won’t be necessary.
In non-Nugs fashion, let’s go ahead and pump the brakes. Is this for real? Can the Nuggets really make its first ever appearance in the NBA Finals and force ABC to include them in postseason commercials? Denver believes. This team is not only good, but it possesses a desire and swagger we haven’t seen from any previous lineups. The 2009 Nugs had a We-Belong-Here attitude. These Nugs have an Us-Against-the-World mentality, complete with a major chip on its shoulder. They’re also equipped with loads of confidence, and a steady, unflinching demeanor on its home floor, where they posted an astonishing 38-3 mark.
“The only thing we can do is be successful in the playoffs and then everything will stop, the commentaries will go away,’’ Karl said.
Is it possible for a No. 3 seed to be a dark horse? In the gauntlet known as the Western Conference, the answer is yes. Call them a dark horse, call them underrated, or an obscure franchise, the Nuggets don’t care. And they’re rearing to expand upon their already remarkable season.
I’m not one to steal team’s marketing phrases, but this one serves its purpose. It’s time to dig in, Denver. The Nugs are in it for the long haul.
(And Josh Kroenke, I plead you, dedicate just a fraction of the Nugs’ postseason revenue to the Colorado Avalanche. They’re not a defunct franchise, you know.)