As soon as the Oklahoma City Thunder lost to the injury-riddled Portland Trail Blazers last night, I had the entire dream scenario playing out in my head: the Nuggets would defeat the aging, soft Phoenix Suns in Phoenix for the first time in 11 tries on Tuesday night, get a walkover first round series victory over the Blazers, be well rested and ready for whoever survives the sure-to-be-brutal Dallas Mavericks/San Antonio Spurs series, get head coach George Karl back, feed off Karl's miraculous recovery to pull off the second round upset and get ready to tee off against the faltering Los Angeles Lakers en route to their franchise's first NBA Finals appearance.
In a sports year that's already seen the New Orleans Saints win a Super Bowl, Butler get to the NCAA Championship Game and Phil Mickelson win the Masters, the Nuggets were destined to be yet another feelgood story for the ages.
Or so I thought.
Most unfortunately for me - and Nuggets fans like me worldwide - reality, the Suns and Adrian Dantley got in the way of that feelgood fantasy.
Let's start with reality. While the Nuggets should be commended for winning 53 games in a season filled with injuries to Chauncey Billups, Carmelo Anthony and Kenyon Martin, the loss of head coach George Karl to onerous cancer treatments and a seven-game suspension for J.R. Smith to begin the season, these Nuggets should not be confused with a championship-caliber team. As Bill Parcells so aptly stated many years ago: "You are what your record says you are." And when you lose to Milwaukee at home even though they're playing a back-to-back coming off a double overtime game, or lose to the Knicks who have nothing to play for while your entire season is on the line, you're simply not a championship team. On balance, the Nuggets had an incredibly successful regular season. But based on how they've played in the biggest of games lately, it's hard to foresee how this great regular season ends with a championship.
Regarding the Suns, I'm still living in denial that they're any good. I might be the very last person to ever jump on the Suns' bandwagon, but this Nuggets team - with their season on the line - should have been able to win in Phoenix . The Suns have been barnstorming lately, but in their last 11 games against plus-.500 teams they're only 6-5. Not exactly a win/loss record that should scare anybody. The Nuggets have more talent, more youth, more athleticism and a better bench than Phoenix, and yet they insist on playing like the Washington Generals in the presence of the Suns. It still makes no sense.
And I've saved the best for last: Adrian Dantley. Poor Adrian Dantley - a man who's clearly never harbored head coaching ambitions - perfectly content making his $250,000 (or whatever he gets paid) assistant coach's salary, holding a clipboard and periodically clapping his hands during timeouts, was thrown into the lion's den when Karl's treatments began and was in over his head from day one. The game plan against the Suns seemed pretty simple to me: slow the game down, play big, punish the Suns inside on offense and play overly physical on defense. And yet by the time TNT switched from the conclusion of the Bulls/Celtics game to the Nuggets/Suns game already in progress, the game was already over. Dantley - most erroneously - either had no game plan at all or decided that the Nuggets might win via a shootout. I'll give Dantley the benefit of the doubt and go with no game plan at all, because no one in their right mind could possibly think a shootout at Phoenix while playing the second of a back-to-back is a good idea.
But if I've learned anything during my tenure as your trusty Nuggets blogger and fan advocate, it's unfair to blame one person alone for a team's failures. The players - notably the Nuggets veteran leaders in Chauncey, Melo and Nene - and assistant coaches must also take responsibility for what's happened in Karl's absence. Simply put, the Nuggets had a virtual lock on the two-seed and a 55-win season before Karl's teary-eyed press conference shocked us all and have turned that good fortune into a possible first-round playoff exit without home court advantage.
When the season began, Melo was routinely getting to the free throw line at least 10 times a game. Through his first 16 games, Melo shot less than nine free throws just four times. And yet in his last 19 games - i.e. on Dantley's "watch" - Melo has attempted more than nine free throws in a game just five times. Melo is savvy and smart enough at this point in his career to know what to do on an NBA court without needing a coach to bark at him during the game. But that doesn't mean he isn't lazy when not coached properly.
Billups - as a result of too much playing time or putting too much pressure on himself to be the coach on the floor in Karl's absence - has failed us with ill-timed jumpers and inaccurate shooting. For the 15th consecutive game tonight, Billups shot less than 50% from the field and fell in love with the three-pointer, even though he hasn't been hitting shots consistently from behind the arc. J.R. Smith was red hot off the bench, and yet Billups and his Nuggets teammates were unable to get J.R. the ball enough in the first half.
And as long as Nene continues to pull his disappearing act in big games, the Nuggets are doomed. In recent "must-win" games at Phoenix, against the Spurs, at Oklahoma City, at Boston and home against the Bucks, check out Nene's points/rebounds totals: 8/4, 3/2, 9/13, 7/5 and 7/10. It doesn't help when Kenyon Martin is playing defense "El Matador" style as he did in Phoenix tonight.
And I won't let Dantley hang out to dry without commenting on the assistant coaches, as well. When Karl announced that he'd be taking time off, we were sold on the assistants being ready to take more responsibility so that Dantley could simply manage the game based on all the brilliant offensive and defensive schemes cooked up by young assistants like John Welch, Chad Iske, Jamahl Mosley and Larry Mangino and the legendary, Yoda-esque Tim Grgrich. I think it's fair to ask: what exactly have these guys been doing for the past few weeks while their boss has been unavailable?
As bad as I feel for Nuggets Nation, I feel the worst of all for Coach Karl. Maybe it's because I've gotten to know him and know the man he is. Or maybe I'd feel this way about anyone in his situation. But here's Karl fighting to get back into that smelly basketball gym just for one more chance at a championship ring, and his coaches and players couldn't keep the ship afloat enough to give Karl a decent shot at coaching in the second round. Karl's grave illness should have been an inspiration to this team, but instead proved only that the Nuggets are rudderless without him.
Fortunately for us all, the season ain't over yet. The playoffs haven't even begun. We don't even know who we're playing. The Nuggets could take care of Utah or Phoenix in Round 1, home or road. It's certainly not a stretch to say otherwise.
By not having to play tomorrow alongside the rest of the NBA, the Nuggets have an extra day to decide if they want to play like champions or not. An extra day to decide if they want to win a playoff series to bring their coach back or not. Count me in as being highly suspect for this team's chances to do anything meaningful in the postseason. But 53 wins and a top-five seed, at least historically, is nothing to sneer at. As long as you make the most of that opportunity.
Go Nuggets. (And go Suns tomorrow so we can open at home against the Jazz in the playoffs!)