Throughout the 2009-2010 season the Denver Nuggets have been magical and miserable, consistently inconsistent, and both a contender and a pretender at times.
Denver has enjoyed winning streaks of six (twice) and eight games this year, but also three-game losing streaks (twice) and has only gone 11-8 since Adrian Dantley took over for cancer-stricken George Karl.
There is no doubt that the Nuggets need both Karl, along with the ailing (left knee) Kenyon Martin for Denver to play at its full potential.
The good news is that Martin will suit up and play for Denver versus Utah. The bad news is that Karl won’t be back that soon, possibly at all this postseason, for the Nuggets.
Veteran point guard Chauncey Billups addressed how Denver’s struggles are due in part to Karl’s absence on Pardon the Interruption Thursday, saying, “When you get those games on the road when you lose by two, three, four points, or in the last minute of the game, those are coaches wins.
“You can always see how much we miss George when we get into situations like that,” Billups admitted.
And since Karl has been gone, Billups has been asked to take an even bigger leadership role than he had before, something that he confesses has worn on him a bit.
“It’s very difficult. On one hand, I’ve always been that leader, coach on the floor, but I’ve never had this much on my plate. Honestly, it’s bogging me down. Sometimes I leave the game very mentally beat up. Physically my body is fine, I feel good, but there’s been some times where mentally I just kind of got overwhelmed a little bit. So it’s a new thing but for me, anything to help the team I’m all for it.”
Billups has been barely holding together this team of young players with volatile personalities, and Martin’s absence has been part of the problem.
K-Mart is a vocal leader, the defensive quarterback, and the largest physical presence the Nuggets have.
Martin, who missed a month of action after tearing his left patella tendon, tested the injured leg in Denver’s final three regular season games. The results of the test were mixed, and could have been a mistake in hindsight.
Martin’s first game back with the Nuggets came last Saturday versus the Spurs (6 pts, 10 reb.), then he played back-to-back games to end the season against Memphis (8 pts, 6 reb.) and Phoenix (4 pts, 3 reb.). And in the final game against the Suns, K-Mart came up lame on the injured knee forcing him to miss the second half.
Did he push himself too hard too soon? For the Nuggets sake, they hope not, and Martin will give it his best effort despite not being close to 100 percent.
Billups commented on Martin’s return saying, “One of the big things for us is having Kenyon back, he’s not 100 percent, but just his presence out there is something we’ve missed tremendously the last month. So having him back, his defensive prowess and him being able to rebound the ball is going to be huge for us.”
Then again, what NBA players are completely healthy this time of year?
For the Nuggets first-round opponent, the Utah Jazz, the injury bug has bitten even harder lately.
Center Mehmet Okur has a strained Achilles tendon and wouldn’t be suiting up for Utah if it weren’t the postseason. Forward Carlos Boozer and his oblique muscle are day to day, although according to the Salt Lake City Tribune’s twitter, he told teammates today that he will play in the series’ opening game Saturday.
Neither will be at full strength and it could prove to be a massive weakness for Utah if either of their big men miss any games.
But it gets even worse for the Jazz, as Andre Kirilenko’s calf injury will keep him out at least two weeks, the length of their series against Denver. Kirilenko may not be the starter, but he’s given Carmelo Anthony fits before.
Anthony, one of the most potent scorers in the league (28.2 PPG), does a lot of damage to the Jazz (33.5 PPG). And without Kirilinko to frustrate him, the Melo man looks to have a huge series.
However, the star matchup of the series is at the most important position on the floor, point guard.
Billups and Williams are two of the biggest players at their position respectively, size and production-wise.
Both were on the West All-Star team in February, both are instrumental to their team’s success.
Williams (18.7 PPG, 10.5 APG, 4 RPG) is an absolute threat shooting jumpers and driving with strength and speed to the hoop. He’s at his best when acting as the facilitator though, and he was third in the league in dropping dimes.
On the defensive end, Williams is the only point big enough to body up Billups and vice versa, setting up for physical battles on both ends of the floor.
Billups is playing arguably the best basketball of his career over the course of this season (19.5 PPG, 5.6 APG, 3.1 RPG) and he’s the first ever NBA player to score a career-high in his 13th year.
Billups is also the only man to make the Conference Finals in seven straight years, and there’s no question he would love to keep that streak alive.
But “Mr. Big Shot” has struggled down the stretch, due in part to shouldering a bigger load, especially when it comes to shooting from downtown. Billups has gone a mere 29.4 percent from beyond the arc in the Nuggets last 10 games and his pull-up three-ball has been missed in Denver.
How Billups and Williams play could determine this series and they will be a joy to watch in every game.
Keeping the Nuggets three-point threat alive are Denver’s two shooting guards, Arron Afflalo (43.4 percent) and J.R. Smith (41.4 percent).
Smith (15.4 PPG) is also the x factor of the series and his performance will be critically scrutinized throughout the playoffs. Smith can be special, with the potential to score 40-plus points at any time, but he can shoot his team out of sure victories as well.
Can Smith play under control or will he be wild with shot selection and full of poor decisions?
This will be a major question as the playoffs play out, the only one that can answer it is Smith himself.
Guard Wesley Matthews (9.4 PPG, 38.2 percent from three) is Utah’s answer to Smith, but they would be crazy to believe the rookie can put up anywhere close to the numbers the J.R. “Swish” will.
Also important to the Nuggets success will be center Nene (13.8 PPG, 7.6 RPG). Nene is as inconsistent as basketball players come, and leader Billups has admitted repeatedly that if Denver doesn’t work him into a game early, they will “lose him” for the rest of the contest.
Nene must play physically dominant basketball, overpowering the injured Okur while throwing down multiple Brazillian tomahawk dunks along the way.
Lastly, the battle of benches will be big and Denver’s depth will be domineering over Utah’s.
The Nuggets have a solid mix of youth and experience coming off the bench (Ty Lawson, J.R. Smith, Chris Andersen, Johan Petro) where the Jazz have a majority of unreliable youngsters (Paul Millsap, Ronnie Price, Matthews, Kosta Koufos).
In all, this is shaping up to be a great grind-it-out, old-school basketball battle through and through.
The Nuggets and Jazz are bitter division rivals and neither will want to lose this series. Both play their best when they are physical and there will certainly be much wrestling under the boards and while fighting through screens.
There’s no doubt this will be one of the great series of the postseason, so grab a cold beverage and get’cha popcorn ready for every basketball fan’s favorite time of year—the playoffs.
Prediction: Nuggets in six
Billups finished his interview by assuring Denver fans, “It’s gonna be a tough series with Utah but if we play the right way, we can come out of that (with the win).”
Nuggets acting coach Adrian Dantley was an All-Star player for Utah in the 80's as a scoring machine. His efforts landed him in the Professional Basketball Hall of Fame and his number was retired by the Jazz on a Nuggets road trip to Utah in early 2008.
If Denver can get passed Utah, George Karl hopes to return, although no one can say for sure.
The schedule for Denver’s first round series is as follows:
Game 1 - Sat April 17 Utah at Denver 10:30PM ESPN
Game 2 - Mon April 19 Utah at Denver 10:30PM TNT
Game 3 - Fri April 23 Denver at Utah 10:30PM ESPN2
Game 4 - Sun April 25 Denver at Utah 9:30PM TNT
Game 5 * Wed April 28 Utah at Denver TBD TBD TBD
Game 6 * Fri April 30 Denver at Utah TBD TBD TBD
Game 7 * Sun May 2 Utah at Denver TBD TBD TBD
Rich Kurtzman is a Colorado State University Alumnus and a freelance journalist. Along with being the Denver Nuggets Featured Columnist here on B/R, Kurtzman is the Denver Broncos FC on NFLTouchdown.com, the CSU Rams Examiner on examiner.com and a contributor to coloradosportsdesk.com.