If last night taught us anything, the reports of the Nuggets recent demise may have been greatly exaggerated (by me included). Oh yeah, and Allen Iverson is back in town.
First, a few words about last night's hard-earned, shocking victory at Utah without the services of Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups. After comparing Nuggets head coach George Karl's December coaching record to that of former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan's of recent year's past, my colleague Mike Prada (who does an excellent job putting together SBN's NBA "Power Rankings" each week) suggested that my comparison was "harsh". I also noticed that neither Nate nor any of the commenters gave Karl any credit for last night's win.
So let me be the first to commend Karl on putting together a game plan to best the Jazz in Salt Lake City sans his two best players. Knowing he would be without Melo and Billups, Karl clearly gave an edict to run, run, run out of the gate and that's essentially what the Nuggets did offensively, spearheaded by Ty Lawson, quickly becoming our favorite new Denver resident. Lawson and his teammates routinely out-ran the Jazz and had them befuddled defensively from the get-go. And while the players deserve major accolades for bringing home a victory none thought they would/could, Karl deserves some praise as well. Congrats all around. What a fantastic way to shake off a bad month and kick off a new year!
Now to tonight's game against the visiting Philadelphia 76ers. Billups will be out again and Melo's status is "uncertain." And as pointed out by Yahoo! Sports' Matt Becker, the Nuggets haven't won back-to-back games in over 2 1/2 weeks.
I suppose if you're in dire need of a back-to-back victory, you might as well get to play the 76ers, who are 4-8 since Allen Iverson rejoined the team in early December. But the 76ers will have a few things going for them tonight when they walk onto the Pepsi Center floor: no Billups, possibly no Melo, the Nuggets will be playing the second of a back-to-back and the 76ers have had two full days of rest. (The 76ers last played on New Year's Eve in Los Angeles against the Clippers and after a solid and sometimes dominant first half folded like deck chairs in the second half and loss. Gee...you think A.I. and his teammates were thinking about their New Year's party plans in Hollywood, possibly??) Additionally, Iverson will be fired up to play against his former teammates and coach. We witnessed this last season when Iverson returned to Denver as a Piston and led his Pistons to a victory over our Nuggets.
But like that Detroit game in which Iverson shot a horrid 6-18 from the field, I suspect "The Answer" will force it early and often tonight, as well. When we last saw the 76ers (the Nugget beat them soundly on December 7th after shaking off a complacent first half), Iverson shot 4-11 in his first game back from his phony retirement and was visibly rusty. More importantly for Nuggets fans, Lawson embarrassed Iverson in that game, routinely blowing by Iverson on offense and even blocking one of Iverson's shots on defense. The 34-year-old Iverson simply couldn't keep up with the rookie Lawson (who can? even Deron Williams couldn't catch up with Lawson last night).
Fortunately for Iverson, he likely won't have to check Lawson tonight. That duty will fall on the shoulders of the 76ers young, solid point guard Lou Williams leaving Iverson free to guard Arron Afflalo or, even better for A.I., Anthony Carter - his former back court mate.
12 games into the new A.I. Era in Philadelphia and with Williams back in the starting lineup, the Nuggets will be facing a very different team than the one we saw back in December.
SCOUTING THE 76ERS (yes, I know we just did this a few weeks ago but here are some new takes)...
-Jrue Holiday: Holiday probably should've stayed at UCLA for another year, evident by how poorly UCLA is playing this year and how poorly Holiday has performed as a rookie. Shooting 35.7% from the field and seeing his playing time jerked around by 76ers coach Eddie Jordan, it's hard to believe that Holiday was once a cornerstone of the 76ers 2009-10 marketing campaign. No, really.
-Elton Brand: Booed relentlessly when playing against the team he stabbed in the back - the Clippers - Brand missed 10 of his 18 shot attempts while watching his 76ers get blown out in the second half.
-Jason Kapono: Since I already picked on one former UCLA star, let's pick on two. Kapono - once a 50% three-point shooter - is making just 41% of his behind-the-arc attempts this season. Not bad for a guy who makes $6.2 million this season and will make $6.6 million next season.
-Lou Williams: Breaks his jaw, sees his starting spot stolen by the aging Iverson, comes back a month earlier than anticipated, plays alongside Iverson, keeps his mouth shut and is starting to play well again. This guy is no Stiff.
-Allen Iverson: He may be a shell of his former self thanks to a career that included a lot of partying and very little, if any, conditioning. But he's still Allen Iverson, quite possibly the best small ball player in NBA history.
-Andre Igoudala: Averaging career highs in rebounding and assists, the multi-faceted Igoudala is having a fine season...as long as you don't look at his field goal percentage.
Photo courtesy of AP Photos: Matt Slocum