The All-Star break couldn't come soon enough as our Denver Nuggets - having lost their second straight game and seventh in 10 tries - are now on the outside looking in at a playoff berth.
There was a moment during the Nuggets' 114-99 loss to the San Antonio Spurs where I looked upon the Nuggets bench and saw just three bodies - Julyan Stone, Timofey Mozgov and Chris Andersen - and thought to myself: "Is this what we've been reduced to?" Nevermind the injuries that have ravaged the team (including a brief period in Thursday night's game when Corey Brewer had to be helped off the floor), but why weren't the injured players on hand for emotional and moral support?
To me, that thinned-out Nuggets bench represented what's been known as "February" here in Nuggets Nation. A month that has produced just four wins against 10 losses thanks to a combination of fatigue, injuries, lack of cohesion, suspect calls and questionable coaching. You know, the things that this Nuggets team in particular was supposed to be able to overcome in a lockout-shortened season.
Instead, it's aging, veteran teams like the Spurs, Lakers and Mavericks that are rolling into the All-Star break confident with their standing while the Nuggets are ... simply and depressingly put ... foundering.
Nuggets head coach George Karl has taken a ton of criticism here at Denver Stiffs for his inability to close out games as of late. And some of that criticism is certainly fair (after all, he'd be getting a lion's share of the credit if this injury-raddled Nuggets squad were racking up wins in February). But I don't think you can pin Thursday's loss against the Spurs solely on Karl. Karl's San Antonio counterpart - Gregg Popovich - astutely rested both Tim Duncan and Tony Parker on Tuesday at Portland, knowing that the Nuggets would be on the second game of a back-to-back on Thursday while Pop's Spurs were in Denver ... waiting and rested.
And that wait and rest resulted in a first quarter blowout over Denver that the Spurs never had to look back from. Sure, the Nugget youngsters - led by a terrific effort from Brewer - put forth a spirited fourth-quarter effort that saw the Spurs' giant lead whittle down to 12. But it was a classic example of too little, too late. It's as if Pop knew when the week began that the Spurs would win at Denver on Thursday. It almost seemed eerily inevitable.
So where do the Nuggets go from here after the break? First things first, the Nuggets have to get healthy and fit. Clearly, players including Arron Afflalo and Nene Hilario (among others) are seeing the negative effects of not being able to work out with the Nuggets strength and conditioning team thanks to the locked-out off-season. It's as if they've been using this crazy, truncated season just to get into shape.
Secondly, if Karl wants to use his "trust" lineup of veteran players to close out games I say fine, but he has to find youngsters he can trust to carry the team deeper into the fourth quarter so that his veteran trust guys aren't gassed with two minutes remaining in regulation each night. Perhaps more Mozgov, Kenneth Faried, Jordan Hamilton and Kosta Koufos are in order ... even when the team is fully healthy. With the Nuggets besieged by injury, these youngsters have proven that they deserve more playing time.
And finally, the Nugget players collectively must find a way to expand their spirited spurts (like we saw in the fourth quarter on Thursday) to a full game. This will come with better health, fitness and some rest but it's a mental thing, too. The Nuggets must come to realize that basketball games aren't won in half-quarter increments.
On Thursday night, the Spurs exposed what we already knew about a depleted Nuggets team on the second of a back-to-back: against a good team, they're toast. It's time for the Nuggets to get healthy and get back to winning ... home or road ... regardless of who the competition is.
Non-Stiff(s) of the Game
-DeJuan Blair: 28 points, 12 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, a block, no turnovers and lots of energy. Blair single-handedly made up for average nights from Duncan and Parker.
-Corey Brewer: I'm going to eat my words for not being enthusiastic about Brewer's arrival back when the Nuggets got him in trade last fall. Brewer remains the erratic mess that I knew he was, but you have to give him credit for amp'ing up the energy in game after game ... especially when his teammates are listless. If not for Brewer against the Spurs on Thursday, there would have been no reason to continue watching this game.
Stiff of the Game
-Jordan Hamilton: I hate to pick on the rookie because he played hard, grabbed a bunch of rebounds and had one awesome block. But 0-7 from the field? Ouch! One shot in particular could have been a game changer, but Hamilton attempted to swish it rather than bank it, hurting the Nuggets (almost) comeback in the fourth quarter.
I'm not pushing the panic button yet. I saw how good this Nuggets team was with its roster fully stocked and have been impressed with the play of the youngsters, even if it's not translating into victories. Give me a favorable March schedule and a healthy roster, and if the Nuggets are still in the Western Conference playoff basement I'll be reaching for that panic button, too.