One of the most unimaginable things happened in sports last night.
Much was different for Minnesota Sunday, as the T’Wolves hung tough throughout the entire game, even after Carmelo Anthony scored 19 in the first quarter and the Nuggets were up 40-25.
George Karl put in the second unit for almost the entire second quarter, with four backups (Smith, Andersen, Lawson, and Graham) and either Kenyon Martin or Nene. While the backups didn’t do horribly, playing Melo for even four minutes could have made the game a runaway before half.
The other problem with playing the B-squad for the total second period was that it sent the wrong message to the whole team.
Karl basically told his team, “We have this game in the bag. We’re going to win and we don’t even need Melo to do it.”
Coming back from half, Denver led by 14, but not even the starting unit could hold back a Minnesota team that played better that night than they had all season. The Timberwolves went on a 14-0 run, and the Nuggets couldn’t answer against a much inferior team.
Minnesota’s Damien Wilkins said after the game, “Being down 14 to Denver, for us that was like being down three. We came into the locker room and were like, 'They'll let us back in it with the way they play.' They're known as a team that will relax sometimes.”
The Nuggets further proved that perception post-half as Denver took jumper after jumper, including a wildly high 24 three-pointers on the night.
After Minnesota out-scored Denver 31-12 in the third quarter, the game was basically over for the Nuggets because their fight wasn’t enough to overcome and pull out the victory.
Everyone in the Nuggets starting lineup played lackadaisically in the second half. There was no movement in the offense and almost no passing. Denver had an awesome 19 assists in the first half, but only four in the second as the offense essentially came to a halt.
But then again, was it unthinkable—or just another game in the NBA?
I mean, sure the Nuggets were supposed to win and it was a big-time loss on their end, but it’s not time to push the panic button if you’re a Nuggets fan. This is a chance for the team to learn.
In the post-game press conference, Karl was upset about his players’ effort, saying, “The playing-hard thing is driving me crazy. Tell me my play-hard (lineup), tell me five guys I can put on the court to play hard every possession ? I had it last year. I don't have a play-hard team this year, and it's making me very angry.”
Karl not only pushed the onus of the loss onto his players, he failed to mention that he was part of the reason the Nuggets lost to the T’Wolves.
Anthony was astounding in the first quarter, yet he couldn’t help widen Denver’s lead from the bench. Karl could have at least sent in Chauncey Billups to be the court general and make players run, or force the issue himself.
Billups addressed Karl’s comments today, saying, “When we play teams that are not very good, it's tough to play the whole 48 minutes when you’re up 14, 15, 17, 18, 19 points. It's tough. I don't care what no coach or no player says. I know that it's tough. George knows that he's got a play-hard basketball team. We embarrassed ourselves. It's not been very consistent through these last five or six games. That's something we have to keep our finger on and get better.”
The asset of veteran Chauncey Billups is that he understands what Karl is trying to do, and realizes it’s an opportunity to improve.
Karl is trying to make a point to an overconfident team that they have to perform at a much higher level and Billups agrees. He also commented today, “I don’t think it’s written enough that we’re somewhat a young team. I don’t know if we’re a championship mentality yet.”
The Nuggets should also take this opportunity to learn that if they want to compete for a championship, they have to play at a championship level night-in, night-out. No more playing down to sorry opponents, (losses to the Clippers, Bucks, and a close win over the Bulls) no more being cocky and thinking they can just walk back to the Western Conference Finals.
Karl warned about the team being too confident coming into training camp, and that theme seems to have continued to this point.
If Denver can learn from this game and attempt to play more consistently as a team, they could be that championship contender they are striving to be. If not, they will likely be bounced from the first round of the playoffs like they were from 2003-08.
Learn young Nuggets, learn.