Fight. Heart. Desire.
These are simply three words. But they are also three concepts that define a champion.
Denver, fresh off their third straight loss to Utah in the first round of the playoffs, is feeling the elephant-sized weight of a championship crumple their already weakened house of cards that is supporting it.
A few cards short of a full deck?
The Nuggets aren’t even close.
George “King” Karl continues to recover from cancer treatments and his absence is hurting Denver more than anyone could have known a mere few months ago.
Chauncey Billups, usually the Nuggets “Ace” that has been playing more like a “Deuce,” alluded to that fact Sunday telling to The Denver Post , “We miss his voice, we miss his leadership, we miss the plays he draws up at timeouts, we miss the halftime speeches, we miss everything.”
Billups’ broad shoulders have had to bear even more weight than normal since Karl has been gone, and he has struggled to keep himself upright, let alone his entire team. Billups is typically reliable with the ball in his hands, but against the Jazz he’s turned the ball over 3.5 times per game. His patented pull-up three pointer isn’t dropping and he’s committed more dumb fouls in these four games than he did the entire regular season.
The Nuggets “Jack” of all trades, Carmelo Anthony, has shown he can score as well as ever (34.5 PPG). But his erratic play, including some eight offensive fouls in four games, has been anything but championship level basketball.
Like Billups, Melo’s turnovers have skyrocketed (4.5 per) and he hasn’t been able to get to the charity stripe with the ease he had all season.
Nene’s size and strength give him the ability to play like a “10” night in, night out, but the six inches between his ears won’t allow him to dominate the way Denver needs.
The big Brazilian center is a solid player but he’s too soft mentally to use his physicality to beat down opponents.
Instead of being the Nuggets lucky number “7,” Kenyon Martin is hobbled by patella tendonitis which is only permitting him to play at around 70 percent. K-Mart is currently averaging 9.5 PPG, two less than his season average, and his defensive intensity isn’t near the level it customarily is.
J.R. Smith, Denver’s “Joker” has been anything but a wild card, and he’s been as invisible as a card up a sleeve in this series. The Nuggets need Smith to be “J.R. Swish,” his alternate ego that has no care about shooting percentages, only about how far out he can drain a shot.
Smith chided his teammates for playing selfishly after their Game Four loss saying on twitter, “You play selfish you lose selfish that's all I'm saying about the game!” another telling sign that the team is falling apart as they put the blame on one another.
But all the hands have not been played out yet.
The Nuggets still have some chips on the table, although they will have to go all-in a couple of times just to even up with the Jazz.
Utah’s 3-1 lead is dominant, but the Nuggets must go out and show they care, that they want to win—if not for themselves than for Karl and the fans.
It seems Adrian Dantley is ready for Denver to compete as Denver Post writer Benjamin Hochman tweeted Monday, “Nuggets have film session after early morning return from SLC. Dantley: ‘I think we're going to win Wednesday.’”
Chauncey Billups called to his teammates Tuesday saying, “It's effort and determination. There are a lot of teams that have been in this situation, being down 3-1, that feel like it's over. We don't feel that way, I most certainly don't feel that way. I've been here before."
Billups was with Detroit when the Pistons erased a 3-1 series deficit against Orlando in 2003, one of only eight teams of 189 in NBA history to complete the grueling task. He finished, "I know it can be done."
If they want to get this massive comeback completed the Nuggets must take Adrian Dantley’s advice. He told the media Monday, "The main thing I told the guys was stay together. I know they feel down.”
Basketball is the quintessential team game and the Nuggets must play as a team to have a gambler’s chance in Utah.
Game Five tips off at 10:30 p.m. ET Wednesday and is sure to be another stellar physical battle on TNT.
Rich Kurtzman is a Colorado State University Alumnus and a freelance journalist. Along with being the acting 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.