The 2009-2010 season started out so promisingly for the Denver Nuggets that a lot of us looked at a Western Conference Finals rematch with the L.A. Lakers as a virtual lock.
That's all over -- and not just because the Lakers are having an unexpectedly difficult time vanquishing the fledgling Oklahoma City Thunder. Barring a miracle, the Nuggets won't be getting past the first round thanks to Friday and Sunday performances so putrid that they're capable of causing cancer-battling coach George Karl to suffer a relapse.
Friday night's 105-93 loss and Sunday night's 117-106 sequel followed pretty much the same pattern. The Nuggets came out of the locker room red hot, only to piss away early leads in a matter of minutes thanks to embarrassing failures at the offensive and defensive ends of the court. From there, it was all over but the moaning.
What went wrong? When the Nuggets had the ball, they all too frequently forgot about moving the basketball, choosing instead to dribble away half the shot clock before relying on either Carmelo Anthony or Chauncey Billups to score points in one-on-one (or sometimes one-on-five) situations. In contrast, the Jazz passed the ball unselfishly, creating high percentage shots by a cast of supporting players who had no business besting the Nugs stars. But they managed to do it anyhow, proving again that team play can overcome individual heroics more often than not.
The Nuggets have one legitimate excuse: Kenyon Martin is presently only a shadow of his healthy self. But that's about it. We can officially stop waiting for Nenê to develop into a dominating post player. Offensively, he's far too inconsistent, not to mention deferential -- and defensively on Sunday, he looked like a swinging door while trying (and failing) to keep Carlos Boozer away from the basket. Likewise, J.R. Smith once again failed to provide the kind of instant offense that's his sole reason for being on the team (he went three-for-eleven from the field); Chris "Birdman" Andersen didn't prove nearly intimidating enough; and so on, and so on.
The night before the Nugs' latest embarrassment, the Colorado Avs were eliminated from the post-season, but the outfits' circumstances couldn't be more different.
The Avs weren't supposed to get within spitting distance of the playoffs this year, but they managed to scrap their way into the eighth slot, and gave the dominating San Jose Sharks more than they wanted before succumbing to the inevitable.
In contrast, the Nuggets should have wound up with the second seed, but slipped to fourth, and would have fallen even farther had the season last a couple more games. Moreover, they reacted to the absence of Coach Karl by becoming undisciplined, sloppy and weak-minded -- easy pickings even for a depleted Jazz crew, which has long done more than less than pretty much any other team in the NBA.
The Nuggets may find a way to take game five; in fact, I expect they will. But there's no plausible reason to expect that they'll find a way to win in Utah. The result will likely be the most dispiriting end to a Nugs season in recent memory, especially in light of the high hopes with which the campaign began.
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