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Denver Nuggets: NBA team or MASH unit?

Once a year, I get to use Westword's season tickets to watch a Nuggets game -- and I was lucky enough to have drawn last night's matchup against the Golden State Warriors, when Chauncey Billups, Carmelo Anthony and Chris "Birdman" Andersen were all out with injuries.

Don't assume the word "lucky" in the sentence above is being used facetiously. Granted, the undermanned Nugs looked terrible at times, and an apparent injury that turned out okay was followed by one that may well compound the misery being felt by the outfit in general. But the end of the game was so crazed, so jaw-droppingly unbelievable, that my dreams of watching Melo, Chauncey and the Birdman wound up seeming mundane in comparison.

Early on, those Nuggets who passed for healthy looked lethargic, almost as if they were walking through a practice drill as opposed to playing a game that would actually count in the standings. Fortunately, the Warriors, under coach Don Nelson, can't be mistaken for a defensive juggernaut, and that allowed some unlikely folks to register decent numbers -- most notably Joey Graham, Melo's replacement, who the Golden Staters seemed too amused by to bother guarding half the time. Kenyon Martin also filled up the box score -- appropriate because he did so thanks to the Warriors not bothering to box out.

Nonetheless, Golden State stayed close thanks to its core of gifted young players -- not just Corey Maggette, who has moments when he looks like the top-flight talent he's always been hyped as being, but youngsters Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry, too. Ellis and Curry are both blessed with extraordinarily sweet strokes and a lot more discipline than the Nugs' J.R. Smith, who pretty much followed his typical template: After making one stupid shot he had no business taking, he became convinced that everything he tossed into the air was going to find nylon.

As usual, some of Smith's attempts did so -- and a lot of them didn't. But when he and Ty Lawson, who's looking better and better as the season goes on, began draining threes, they jolted a building desperately in need of a jump-start. (Even super-mascot Rocky seemed to be suffering from an energy shortage. His most energetic routine involved carrying a baby around for several minutes.) Before long, the Nuggets had a ten-point lead...

Which they promptly pissed away in what appeared to be their latest fourth quarter swoon. Along the way, the Warriors erased the deficit and eked out a small lead. Meanwhile, Nenê limped off the court and into one of the Pepsi Center tunnels, raising the possibility that he'd become the third starter on the shelf -- only to return shortly thereafter with no apparent ill effects (other than his usual soft play... although he was doing that before he hurt himself). But then, even as fans were sighing with relief, Ty Lawson went down with a sprained ankle that was clearly the real deal.

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If this keeps up, Renaldo Balkman may actually get into a game.

As Lawson hobbled away, the Pepsi Center faithful seemed to lose faith. But a funny thing happened on the way to the latest loss to a sub-.500 squad. The Nuggets closed the gap on the Warriors amid out-of-control play and fouls aplenty that the referees didn't seem to notice. (They swallowed their whistles frequently throughout the night, giving Nugs' loyalists plenty to scream about.)

In the end, Smith had a chance to win the game with 1.4 seconds left, and while his shot didn't come close, the ref nearest him made the ultimate make-up call, ringing up Ellis and giving J.R. three free throws. He promptly sank the first two, then purposefully missed the third, securing an unlikely victory and giving the throng a chance to go absolutely apeshit.

Who needs Billups, or Melo, or Andersen? The Nuggets do, without question -- but for one night, the bench made thousands of people temporarily forget about them. And we were damned lucky to watch it happen.

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