How the Denver Nuggets Made Me Look Like a Fool

Cyrus I.Correspondent IMay 17, 2009

DENVER - APRIL 29:  Chris Andersen #11 of the Denver Nuggets reacts after a basket by a teammate during action against the New Orleans Hornets in Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2009 NBA Playoffs at Pepsi Center on April 29, 2009 in Denver, Colorado. The Nuggets defeated the Hornets 107-86. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

They don't play defense.

How can they expect to advance past the first round if they can't make some sort of effort to stop the ball?

Sure, they have the talent and the ability, but consider it a waste because they definitely don't take full advantage of it in the playoffs.

Just a bunch of knuckleheads. Whatever George Karl instructs them to do, it goes in one ear and out the other.

Those were the thoughts that circled my mind concerning the Denver Nuggets year after year. Their front office had pinned Carmelo Anthony as the team's savior from the day he was drafted, and they had recycled through many potential right-hand men for 'Melo; ranging from Marcus Camby, Andre Miller, Allen Iverson and more.

After all, the team had failed to get past the first round of the playoffs for five straight years. Something needed to be done, whether it was getting Anthony some help or hiring a new coach.

It turns out Denver's problem did not stem from either of those "needs." All they needed was somebody to tell them to play consistent, hard-nosed defense. Not just in the regular season, but in the postseason, as well.

Believe me, Karl tried to. This was a guy who came in 2005 as replacement for former head coach Jeff Bzdelik and interim coach Michael Cooper. Karl came in with boatloads of head coaching experience, as evidenced by Denver's 32 and eight record in the second half of the season.

And then it finally happened.

Denver's general manager Mark Warkentien had a major breakthrough.

Just a couple of games into the 2008-2009 NBA season, Warkentien traded high-profile "superstar" in Allen Iverson to the Detroit Pistons for cool, calm and collected Chauncey Billups. Billups' nickname, "Mr. Big Shot," was earned because of his clutch play in the 2004 NBA playoffs, the year Detroit made their unexpected but inspirational title run.

Nuggets fans didn't know what to really think of the early-season transaction. Some of them approved greatly of the move, welcoming Billups (who was born and raised in Denver) with open arms.

The die-hards just prayed that he wouldn't be another player who would not pan out playing alongside of Anthony and the rest of the Nuggets.

But their expectations for Billups' adjustment to the team turned out to be the exact opposite, actually, as Denver finally made a commitment on the defensive end. It also helped that newly acquired Chris Andersen and Dahntay Jones are most known for their aggressive, man-to-man defense.

Let us not sway off topic, however, as Billups was surely the guy who directed Denver's change of philosophy on defense and turned them into a team that could harness all of its talent on the offensive end while playing stingy defense at the same time.

We know for a fact that Billups did a hell of a job, because even Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith bought into what he was saying.

Despite all of Denver's success in the regular season, there were still few questions left to be answered.

Would they stop playing defense when it matters most, in the playoffs?

In whose hands would the ball be placed in crunch time: Anthony's or Billups'?

Here's the answer key: 1) No. 2) Either one.

To be frank, I was one of those doubters.

In the first round against New Orleans, Denver kept the pressure on New Orleans to put together a furious comeback in nearly every game of the five-game series.

Also, it did not look as if their level of intensity on defense had lessened in any way since the regular season, by knocking the living daylights out of the Hornets in Game Four on national television, 121 - 63. It was the biggest blowout in the history of the NBA playoffs.

Billups scored over 30 points twice in that series, nailing three after three every time New Orleans attempted to get themselves back in the game.

As for Anthony, ask the Dallas Mavericks about his heroics. He scored over 30 points in three games, including a 41-point outburst in Game Four. But most importantly, he sank a game-winning three-pointer right in front of the Mavericks' coaching staff and dagger in the hearts of the Dallas faithful following a non-fouling gaffe by Dallas' Antoine Wright.

By initially picking Dallas to frustrate Denver and possibly upset them in the second round, it's almost as if Denver blatantly insulted my basketball intellect through their five-game eradication of the Mavericks.

I thought Denver's emotions would spill onto the court as a cause of Dallas' antics, and with the quick-tempered personalities and wild horses Denver has on their roster, it seemed like a worthy suggestion.

But boy, was I wrong...dead wrong.

Right after the buzzer sounded for Game Three, a game where many thought Dallas had well in hand, some of Dallas' players began to lose it. In particular, Josh Howard began barking at the refs, to the point where he had to be restrained by several teammates.

The Mavericks' controversial owner Mark Cuban got in on the act as well, by roughing up a cameraman, pointing at Kenyon Martin's mother who was in attendance and letting her know that her son is a 'thug'.

So as of now, Denver is sitting pretty. They are 8-2 in nine played playoff games, breezing through New Orleans and Dallas, reaching their first conference finals since 1985. They'll either play Los Angeles and Houston, a series in which the Rockets have thrown everything but the kitchen sink at the Lakers.

But let us not forget: Who made it all happen?

"The culture was changing before Chauncey came," Karl said. "And then Chauncey comes and here's the spokesperson for everything I was basically saying."

Oh yeah, let's give Warkentien some props. He was only named the NBA's executive of the year two weeks ago.


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