What's new? Put five circus midgets wearing swim fins on the floor and Your Denver Nuggets can find a way to lose to them. But if it's the high-flying, trash-talking, world-beating Seattle Supersonics out there, or Hakeem the Dream and the Houston Rockets, Dan Issel's problem children probably will kick ass and take names.

Translation: Unlike, say, the Colorado Rockies bullpen, the young Nuggets still are defining themselves. Still jumping back and forth between the honor roll and detention. Still yanking our chains.

At this writing, just eight games remain in the regular season, and the Nuggets' playoff picture (that has a nice, alien ring to it) is about as settled as politics in Rwanda. Take the past two weeks. The team hit the road March 26 with a cozy, 6 1/2-game lead over the moribund Los Angeles Lakers for the eighth and final playoff spot in the NBA's Western Conference. But consecutive losses in Seattle, Utah and Phoenix--playoff sites all--jacked up the stress level in the Nuggets' locker room. The games all were hard-fought, but the young club, rarely confident on the road, failed to finish and came up short each time. The strain was showing.

"Tight," one regular observer noted. "I mean tense. Sarajevo."
Meanwhile, new Lakers coach Magic Johnson had injected some life back into a sleepy club out in La-La Land. Lakers warhorse James Worthy started scoring again. Jack Nicholson and assorted stars, a notably fickle bunch, pointed their limos back toward the Forum. The Lakers went 4-1 under their new leader. So when Issel's bunch came home to Big Mac on April 5, their lead was down to 3 1/2 games.

Not to worry. They'd get well against that other L.A. outfit, the lowly Clippers, a 25-47 team that doesn't even interest Madonna. The Clips were on a five-game slide, and their star, Dominique Wilkins, was out with the flu. Mid-game, the exemplary Nuggets TV color man, Scott Hastings, bluntly announced: "This team sucks." No problem, right?

Wrong. L.A. 92, Denver 91.
After dreaming through the first half and most of the third quarter (in which they once trailed by twenty points) the Nuggs got up from their nap and put a furious rush on in the fourth period. Except for a missed Robert Pack chippie at the horn, they would have pulled the win out, too. Instead, that old bugaboo handed the youngsters their fourth straight loss: Playing down to the competition.

"With young people," general manager Bernie Bickerstaff explains, "you should deal with the immediate instead of looking down the road. That's a little dangerous. What we need to do is get busy and win some basketball games--one at a time."

Two nights later, Shawn Kemp and the mighty Sonics swaggered into town sporting a league-leading 55-17 record and their customary attitude: pissed-off Visigoths on speed. The game had a particular edge to it. Should the young Nuggets hang on and make the playoffs, they likely will face the top-seeded Sonics in the first round. So Seattle wanted to make their evil future intentions known. Backs against the wall, the Nuggets wanted to show they don't intend to be appetizers in a Sonics' postseason feast.

Yep. High drama at McNichols.
Issel got himself canned on a double technical in the first quarter, courtesy of Steve "Mr. T" Javie (the thin-skinned ref who threw the Washington Bullets' mascot out of a game this year). Assistant Gene Littles took the reins.

The Nuggets' best shooter, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, had a sore hip, so he sat behind the bench, dressed in mustard blazer and blue jeans. A substantial-looking Denver cop sat right behind Mahmoud, dressed in blue serge. This was just hours after Bickerstaff told Denver Post columnist Mark Kiszla that Abdul-Rauf should be replaced in the starting lineup next year by a point guard who can direct the team as well as score. That turned some heads.

While Denver fell nine points back early and the furious Issel watched on TV in his office, the prospects for the Nuggets' first playoff appearance in four years were vanishing fast. So roll the credits, right?

Wrong again. Denver 104, Seattle 90.
In the midst of this huge turnaround win, Dikembe Mutombo, the Nuggets' mysterious seven-foot, two-inch center, put his second consecutive triple-double (13 points, 13 rebounds, 11 blocked shots) up in lights and, if he hadn't already done it, announced his arrival as an authentic defensive force in the league. Scoring, schmoring. You don't need ten slam-dunks a game if you play "D" like Dikembe: He's the African Blockade, and fans would do well to understand him for it.

After the Seattle game, smiles returned to a glum locker room. Reggie Williams, the team's slender, cool captain, quietly said: "Confident? We're very confident. We're still ahead. We're not behind. The Lakers have to catch us."

For the moment, at least, the ship was righted. The clammy hand, the dreaded choke, was on hold.

"We've lost so many games of late it's tough to step up and win," the evening's replacement coach, Littles, said afterward. "You start to see a game slide, you're playing the best team in the NBA and it's kind of tough...But our guys stepped up. This was a big game for us."

Friday Night at the Forum was even bigger.
After falling behind as much as ten points, Denver rose up like, well, a focused playoff team, to beat the undermanned Lakers 112-99. That might have been L.A.'s last gasp: Portland whacked them 112-104 Sunday. Following the Nuggets' own last-minute fade against Houston Sunday night, they had a four-game lead over L.A. with eight to play. That club now needs some authentic magic to beat Denver to the wire.

If the Lakers can't manage it, hoop fans will be disappointed. All of us Rocky Mountain airheads excepted, a total of nine Americans (and no TV sports executives) want the Nuggets to make the playoffs.

Everybody wants Saint Earvin to go instead.
Instead of trying out for the Dodgers, Magic Johnson has returned momentarily to the sport he's good at as a coach. L.A.'s interim coach probably won't write any textbooks about that complex art, but the Lakers' players have responded to the greatest Laker ever, and he remains the country's favorite HIV patient. So the notion of Magic's club suddenly rising up against the powerful and the favored in the postseason (not so farfetched: They scared the hell out of Phoenix last year) has taken on the appeal of a kid's storybook.

But don't count on it. The elegant and witty Littles, for one, applies mathematical logic to the case: "We got too many games for them to think that if they win four or five in a row they can catch us. They're gonna lose some games. If they win every game the rest of the season then we'll have to call the commissioner and say: `How could this team never win before and all of a sudden they're winning. What did Magic do?'"

The Lakers visit Denver on April 19, and the Nuggets have a couple of road games left that a Thursday night lawyers' team couldn't screw up: Minnesota and Dallas occupy the Western Conference cellar. So the Sonics remain on the minds of the kids who can't seem to beat bad teams but raise havoc with good ones.

"We sent a message to Seattle," guard Robert Pack said, "that if we do meet in the playoffs it's not gonna be any walk in the park. We split 2-2 with them in the season, and that was important--they didn't come in here and get another victory over us. If we do meet it's gonna be a battle."

If the young people will just take it one game at a time.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo