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The Moe, the Merrier

Nuggets head coach George Karl and assistant Doug Moe at a recent game.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Have you noticed? They don't have a last name between them. George, Karl, Doug and Moe sound like four hackers who take turns hitting it in the drink at Park Hill. But down at the Pepsi Center -- you know, that big red thing where, once upon a time, a team called the Avalanche used to play something called hockey -- they are now the sure-thing exacta. The NHL? Who cares? Lock 'em out till their skates rust. The only game in town these days is NBA basketball, and the wise monarchs who preside at court are George Karl and Doug Moe. Ex-Tar Heels. The Turnaround King and the Denver's beloved Big Stiff. The stern head coach and the profane, wise-cracking, 66-year-old assistant from Brooklyn who used to be his boss.

"They're something else, all right," Denver Nuggets guard Greg Buckner says. "This has been a great run, and they're the ones who made it possible."

If the Nuggets can get by the favored San Antonio Spurs and advance into the second round of the NBA playoffs next week, most of the credit will justly go to Karl, who's been in Denver three months, and Moe, who's been here (for the most part) since David Thompson perfected the slam dunk and Mayor McNichols was slipping out to the dog track to play a hot tip in the seventh. Together, they're the ones who give young Carmelo Anthony not only a jump shot, but an identity he can depend on for the next ten years. They're the ones who make Nene run, who keep Kenyon Martin ferocious and who try to put Marcus Camby back together again. In general terms, Karl's the bad cop who turns up the heat in the interrogation room. Moe's the canny old desk sergeant, seeming to conspire with suspect Boykins and potential juvenile delinquent Melo.

Whatever the dynamics are, they're magic.

"Doug is just making me more comfortable," Karl says. "His words are very good; his wisdom is good.Š The quick hitting, the quick-shots, quick-tempo, constant-pace mentality is all Doug. And it's been working."

General manager Kiki Vandeweghe has got to be loving this. Having stumbled and false-started for almost three years, provoking the ire of the fans and the laughter of the league, he now has something authentically sound out there on the floor -- and standing, expensively suited, in front of the bench. At long last, the Vandeweghe is starting to look like the Rightway.

Denver won its first playoff game against the Spurs Sunday night, 93-87, behind Andre Miller's 31-point performance, while limiting an oft-rested Tim Duncan to 7-for-22 from the field.

That's one game. No matter what happens in the next five or six punch-ups with the Spurs, the 2004-05 Nuggets season -- the second half of it, anyway -- has already been one of the most uplifting spectacles in Denver sports history, thanks in no small part to Karl and Moe. In three months, they turned a lackadaisical, rudderless team blessed with a lot of high-priced talent into a red-hot contender that no one in the NBA's Western Conference -- not San Antonio, not Phoenix, not Seattle -- wanted to face in the first round.

Before this year's dream comes to an end -- or before Cloud 9 billows up into Cloud 109 with a series win over Duncan and Sons -- let's have a look at the chemistry and the mechanics of the thing. And a glimpse of the future. Because the James Posey/Junior Harrington days are gone forever. Never again will you find unused Nuggets tickets stuck under your windshield wiper in the parking lot. No more listening to the guy behind you in section 316 snoring through the fourth quarter. Never again a Dan Issel tantrum. No more Nick Van Exel snits. Just authentic NBA Hoop -- the brash, ill-tempered big brother of NBA Hope.

The footnotes to our happy text might stump a spelling-bee champ. The name Nikoloz Tskitishvili challenged beat writers typing it on deadline, and even "Jeff Bzdelik" tied a few fingers in knots. But both of them are gone now, along with the uneasy memories. When Karl took up the Nuggets' head-coaching duties on January 27, Bzdelik and his short-term successor, Michael Cooper, had compiled a dismal 17-25 record that pointed toward another season of Denver doom. Last year, the team reached the playoffs for the first time since the Franco-Prussian War and were summarily executed by the Minnesota Timberwolves. This year? Nada. Fan grumble rose to a din.

But George Karl doesn't take failure lightly. He hadn't posted a losing season in thirteen years. In his first year at Cleveland, 1984-85, he lifted the former "Cadavers" to their first playoff spot in seven years; at Golden State, which hadn't made post-season play in nine seasons, he took the 1986-87 Warriors all the way to the conference semi-finals. He turned a .500 Seattle Sonics team into a contender, and in 2000 he got the hapless Milwaukee Bucks into the playoffs for the first time since 1993. He came to Denver at age 53 with 708 notches on his NBA belt and a clear method in mind. Make 'em work. Kick ass. Bench the laggards. Don't worry about hurt feelings and bruised egos.

Results? The Karl Regime went 32-8. The Nugs won nineteen of twenty at home. After the February 20 NBA All-Star Game -- played at the Pepsi Center, but without a single Nugget on the West roster -- they tore up the league with a 25-4 mark. They lost two of their three last regular-season games (to Houston and powerful Phoenix) by a total of 42 points, raising fears that they were cooling off, but the team in sky blue and gold had a pretty good excuse: Center Marcus Camby, a brutish defender and shot-blocker, was on the bench with a bad hamstring.

The key to the San Antonio series? As Camby goes, so go the Nuggets; as Duncan goes, so go the Spurs.

"I like our match-up," Karl said before leaving for Texas. "I don't know if we have answers for Phoenix, but against San Antonio we've had more success.... They know how to win games with defense and possession, but I'm not sure they wanted to get us."

Karl's only fear, he said, was facing the Spurs without Camby.

Luckily for him, he's got a healthy Doug Moe. Last summer, Moe suffered a heart attack and underwent quintuple-bypass surgery. But that didn't keep him from taking up his coaching-consultant duties this season under Bzdelik. What's a "coaching consultant"? In this case, it was the former head man who in the 1980s won the most games in Nuggets coaching history -- 432 of them, a banner in the rafters tells us -- sitting in the third row, observing the play and taking mental notes. But Karl, who broke into the NBA as a San Antonio assistant under Moe, sensed that wasn't enough. In mid-February, he grabbed his old mentor out of the stands and brought him to the bench. Since then, the Nuggets have lost exactly four games.

Characteristically, the Big Stiff waves off any kudos for the team's resurrection. "It's been good," he said in the media dining room last week. "George is doin' a great job. Only fucked up four times. Damn it, George...;"

For his part, Karl credits Moe with schooling the Nuggets in running and passing at breakneck tempos, skills the new head coach has incorporated into his own style. But Moe's technical prowess is not everything. Since January, Karl says, his old friend has also cleared a path for the younger man's entry into what was the frustrated, emotionally distraught atmosphere of the Nuggets organization itself. "He's given me my security blanket," Karl said. "He was the one guy that held an olive branch in all departments. There was a peacefulness when Doug was with the team, a peacefulness when he was with Kiki [Vandeweghe], a peacefulness with the coaches, a peacefulness with the fans. It just seems like he was the unifying factor."

Has the Big Stiff in his dotage become a wise man? "Don't ever say that," Karl shot back, laughing. "He's still a stiff." Then he thought about it. "He's a wise stiff."

Thanks to the two of them, wisdom comes a lot easier to the Nuggets these days.