It is not yet time to print playoff tickets and map a parade route through downtown, but your Denver Nuggets--the problem children of the National Basketball Association--are growing up.

Last month they put together their first .500 December in four years. They won five straight before collapsing against Philadelphia Sunday night, stopping their home-win streak at nine. The team's modest recent accomplishments also include two straight road wins: The Nuggets shocked the alpha of pro hoops in Texas, mighty 23-1 Houston, December 23, then took out the omega, the lame and halt Dallas Mavericks, five nights later.

This modest feat, two straight road wins, would hardly sound an echo in the locker rooms of the Phoenix Suns, the league-best Seattle Supersonics or the Jordan-less Chicago Bulls. But the last time the long-suffering, travel-sick locals managed it was at the end of the 1989-1990 season. That's right. Ancient history. B.W. Before Westhead. Doug Moe was still the Nuggets' coach, and Denver's roster included not only Alex English and T.R. Dunn, but semistiffs Joe Barry Carroll, Eddie Hughes, Jerome Lane and Tim Kempton.

So if Mayor Webb is not yet ready to call out the riot police in anticipation of an NBA title, hoop fans might begin to think, ever so cautiously, about a time when the Nuggets no longer provoke laughter in the smoke-clogged balconies of Madison Square Garden or cool yawns in Los Angeles.

Because they're coming on. Slowly but surely. A 14-14 record may not sound like much, but last year at this time the Nuggets were 7-21.

Looking for signs and signals? A perusal of the statistics reveals that speedy guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, equipped this season with a new name and a new resolve, has missed exactly three free throws, and his current streak without a miss has reached 48. If you really want to be immersed in the power of symbolism, note that Abdul-Rauf is now a perfect 34 for 34 from the line away from McNichols Arena. If this kind of thing is catching, like the flu, then maybe Denver's eternal road woes aren't so eternal.

Certainly, the win in Houston two days before Christmas shocked even the visitors. Not since 23 years earlier when the legendary New York Knicks of Earl "The Pearl" Monroe, Walt Frazier and Dollar Bill Bradley started the season 23-1 had a club dominated the early going so thoroughly as the 1993 Rockets. They had to take a fall sometime, of course, but no one over four feet tall expected the lowly Nuggets to breeze into Houston and prevent Hakeem Olajuwon and Company from setting an NBA record of 24-1. It was the Rockets' first home loss of the year: If you see half a dozen more of those, Chuck and Di will probably reconcile.

As character-builders go, the Denver win at Houston was huge for the league's youngest team, particularly because it came just two nights after the Nuggets knocked off Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns at McNichols. Green Nuggets clubs of the past might have been so startled by success that they would have floated down to Texas on a cloud, then been swept away like air. Instead, the Phoenix win kicked off the Nuggs' five-win streak, which ended in a listless effort against 11-17 Philly.

More sunshine? Former Notre Dame star LaPhonso Ellis is developing into one of the best young players in the NBA, and fellow second-year man Bryant Stith has overcome last season's nightmare of busted metacarpals and nagging metatarsals to become the team's second leading scorer, behind Abdul-Rauf. At this writing Ellis has pulled down 230+ rebounds and stands third in individual Nuggets scoring with a 13.8 points-per-game average. He may also have cast out some early-career road jitters: In recent weeks he's been more productive away from home than at Big Mac. Stith, the promising guard out of Virginia who could be the real key to the Nuggets' future, is not only shooting well but has the team's second-highest free-throw percentage. In helping reduce Dallas to, well, 2-24, Stith sank all fifteen of his tries from the stripe.

Meanwhile, the mystery of Dikembe Mutombo continues apace. The 7-2 center has nearly 350 rebounds and 113 blocked shots this year (Denver again leads the league in blocks), but he's averaging just 11 points per game, and some say he saves his best stuff for friendly rivals Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning, fellow Georgetown alumni. Mutombo's little sky hook can sail uncertainly at the hoop, he has a penchant for rough stuff and argument, and his ball-handling is no masterpiece. But there's fire aplenty in the big man's belly, and if, in his third season, he continues to develop as a dominating presence, the Nuggets just might join the NBA elite.

On the other hand, ex-Detroit Piston Alvin Robertson, acquired in November for defensive standout Mark Macon and underachiever Marcus Liberty (who always seemed to be in Dan Issel's doghouse), went on the injured list November 29. Instead of providing some crucial veteran savvy, Robertson remains down with back spasms. He's terminally damaged goods, some are whispering, and could be a distant hallucination by the time the young Nuggets finally rise to fame and glory.

When they do, they are likely to feel the way Rhodes scholar and now U.S. Senator Bill Bradley did after the Knicks won two NBA titles in four years. "The sudden rush of awareness that a group has become a meshed team provides each member with a remarkable sense of power," he wrote in Sports Illustrated. "Each game is eagerly anticipated. Road games suddenly become like paid vacation. You begin to see in your teammates good qualities that before went unnoticed...Other groups that are further back along the road toward unity look foolish against the confident effort of a well-blended team."

By all indications, these kids have just begun to blend, and they're still stacking up vacation days.

That sound you hear is the hull of the ship crushing.
The Broncos, scuttled by the Buccaneers a week earlier and winless at the Los Angeles Mausoleum since the Reagan administration, gave way to the pressure again Sunday. The onrushing flood of doubt and disappointment spells certain doom for Captain Biff and his entire crew.

Three times the Broncos held 13-point leads (Clear sailing--full speed ahead!), and three times the despised (and undermanned) Los Angeles Raiders stormed back with their Jolly Roger flying in tatters. In the end, as you know, Jason Elam missed a 40-yard overtime field goal wide left, and Jeff Jaeger nailed a 47-yarder to give the Raiders the startling win, 33-30.

Think of it: The sallow and leering pirate chieftain, Al Davis, cackling away up there in his well-upholstered crow's nest, hungrily recounting all the booty he's snatched from the U.S.S. Donkey over the decades. This must have been the sweetest score of them all for Al. Because...

The off-course Donks are coming back for more next Sunday.
If the Broncos' sixth straight loss in L.A. was sheer invention, the turn of fate that matches the same two clubs at the same site in the wild-card game is pure irony. Despite John Elway's MVP-season heroics and the emergence of his new receiver corps, the Broncos just can't win out there.

How'd you like to be inside their waterlogged heads this week, matey? Me neither. Commit 'em to the heaving deep right now: Tune in that Francis the Talking Mule marathon.


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