George Karl and the mysterious case of the missing inbounds play...

Pardon me while I beat this dead horse a few more times. Even though The Denver Post is reporting that the Nuggets have "four or five" inbounds plays, the Nuggets have erred in that department to disastrous, game-losing results twice in the Western Conference Finals. But if you think this is the first and only time that head coach George Karl has presided over errant inbounds pass plays, read on...

March 26, 2007. After outplaying a very good Detroit Pistons team for most of the night, the Nuggets are up three at The Palace with 1.5 seconds left and the ball out-of-bounds. All the Nuggets need to do is inbound the basketball, secure it and the game is over. But rather than take this game-ending play seriously, Nuggets center Marcus Camby casually flips the ball towards Carmelo Anthony, the Pistons Tayshaun Prince tips it to teammate Rasheed Wallace who makes a miracle 60-foot buzzer beater. "You could give him a hundred and he wouldn’t make one, but he made one," Karl said afterward. "I personally would have liked the ball to be thrown more toward the rim or the corner, but you can’t criticize a lucky shot. That was a lucky shot." (You can see the clip on YouTube here.)

November 7, 2008. Buried in ESPN.com's Tom Friend's excellent article on Chauncey Billups is a story about Chauncey's debut game with the Nuggets this season. According to Friend...

With 2:54 left in the fourth quarter, the Nuggets are clinging to a 99-98 lead, when the ball goes out of bounds to the Nuggets underneath their own basket. Chauncey's fear is realized. The team has no out-of-bounds play. Karl just wants them to improvise, to use their basketball instincts, but Chauncey can't live that way. So he calls time.

In the huddle, they're all stumped. (J.R.) Smith tells Anthony: "He just got here, and he's calling timeouts?" But Chauncey waves them close and starts in: "Look, George, I need you to draw me up an out-of-bounds play, man, to get the ball in. Because if we don't and we turn the ball over and lose this game because we didn't have something, that just won't sit well with me."


Karl and the team's response is: wow.

This article has been cited no less than 30 times in the comments on this blog since the Nuggets have blown two inbounds passes in three Western Conference Finals games.

May 19, 2009. As Nuggets fans know all too well, the Nuggets had possession of the ball and were down just two points with 29 seconds to play at Staples Center in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. But even though the Lakers are the NBA's tallest team, Karl elects to have his shortest player - all six feet of Anthony Carter - inbound ball against the 6'9" Lamar Odom. Unable to see the floor accurately and with the Nuggets not running any picks to get players open, Carter's errant attempt is tipped by the Lakers Trevor Ariza and the Lakers never look back. Game over.

May 23, 2009. In theory learning from his collosal Game 1 mistake, Karl inserts Kenyon Martin to inbound the ball with 36 seconds left and the Nuggets down just two again. After not being able to throw the ball in on his first try because - again - no picks are properly set to get a Nuggets player open, K-Mart correctly calls a timeout. This in theory giving Karl another shot at drawing up a better inbounds play. But on the ensuing throw-in, the Nuggets are again unable to get a player open, K-Mart throws a poor pass towards Melo and Ariza - again - tips the ball and steals the victory. "That's not why we lost the basketball game," Karl said afterward. "Remember, we were down in both situations, and the turnover just creates a different catch up game." Yeah, right.

While neither the bad Game 1 pass or the bad Game 3 pass were the sole reason the Nuggets lost those games, they put the nail in each game's respective coffin. So Karl is deluding himself (and attempting to delude us, but we don't buy it) if he thinks screwing up crucial inbounds plays merely "create a different catch up game."

Given the incident in Detroit from 2007 and the Chauncey story noted above uncovered by Friend, it's clear that Karl either doesn't have a solid, go-to inbounds play or, if he has one in his arsenal, he's not having the players practice it routinely. My guess is it's probably both.

I've been told by many members of the Denver sports media that Karl's "basketball mind" is one of the best in the NBA. I've never doubted that Karl - when motivated - can be a great coach. We've seen that throughout this regular season and for most of the postseason, and I'm not placing all the blame on Karl for the Nuggets losing Games 1 and 3. But his penchant for improvisation seems to be biting him in the ass in this area. Because if one errant inbounds play is a mistake and two is a problem, than four must be a pattern of incompetence in regards to inbounding the ball. And most unfortunately for the Nuggets and their fans, this has been something Karl and the Nuggets desperately needed to get right in the conference finals.

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