Nuggets fans won't have to wait long to see how the team responds to the sad news that head coach George Karl has been diagnosed with cancer again. Considering the circumstances, playing at Cleveland in a nationally televised game just two days after Karl's shocking revelation might be the team's biggest test of the season thus far.
When we last saw the Cavaliers, the Carmelo Anthony-less Nuggets eeked out a thrilling 99-97 early January victory at Pepsi Center while yours truly got his 15 minutes of fame in one ESPN broadcast. As we well remember, the Nuggets were red hot in January, winning 12 of their 15 games.
So far, the hot streak hasn't extended into February with the Nuggets playing .500 ball. But the competition has gotten much tougher. With the exception of playing the lowly Sacramento Kings to kick off February, the Nuggets have faced all playoff caliber foes and in each game, the Nuggets have been shorthanded with either Melo, Chauncey Billups or Kenyon Martin missing action in those six contests.
In keeping with that theme of tough competition, the Nuggets begin the unofficial "second half" of the NBA season by having to play on the road against the NBA's hottest and premier team: the Cavaliers. Since losing at Denver on January 8th, the boys in "red wine and gold" have lost just once. Once! (to quote Joe Piscopo from "Johnny Dangerously", one of my all-time favorite 80s comedies.) If you're scoring at home, that means the Cavs are winners of 15 of 16, while currently riding a 13-game winning streak. And just like last season, the Cavs are virtually unbeatable at home where they've lost just three times all season, two of which came in the first week as they were figuring out how to play with Shaquille O'Neal on board.
Throw in the newly acquired, recent All-Star Antawn Jamison (even though he plays the same position at LeBron James, so I'm a little suspect about how this will work out) and the Cavaliers - in theory - are marching all the way to the NBA Finals.
So, if the challenge wasn't great enough as-is, enter Karl's revelation that he has been diagnosed with cancer for the second time in his life. The Nuggets players shouldn't (and don't) need Karl's situation to get up emotionally for a big game like this. But if there's a silver lining, it's possible that the Nuggets players will have an extra morsel of energy and fight in them down the home stretch of the season as they're suddenly playing for more than a title. They'll be playing to make their coach, who has put them in the best possible position to succeed with or without him on the bench, proud.
Fortunately for the Nuggets players and fans, Karl will be on the bench Thursday night in Cleveland, one of his former stomping grounds as an NBA coach (see photo above). Right off the bat this sends an inspiring message to the team: I might be down, but I'm not out and I'm going to fight this thing to the bitter end.
The least the players can do is play basketball with that same mantra and I expect nothing less of this squad, a collection of players who have shown - if anything - a remarkable resilience to succeed in the face of great adversity in their own lives. Whether its Chauncey Billups who was left for dead by five NBA franchises (including ours) before finding his place in NBA lore and may end up in the Hall of Fame. Or Kenyon Martin who has battled back admirably from two devastating knee surgeries to become the best defensive (and not a bad offensive) player on the team. Or Carmelo Anthony who seems to be making the right choices after making so many bad ones that many in Nuggets Nation once wanted him traded. Or J.R. Smith who knows first-hand what the death of a close friend feels like and the burden the goes along with that. Or Arron Afflalo who has never been given a chance to succeed in the NBA until now and is making the most of it. Or Nene who himself knows a thing or two about overcoming cancer and getting back on the floor as a better player and person. Or Chris Andersen who was banned from the league for substance abuse, only to turn his life around and return as one of the best energy guys off the bench in the entire league. Or rookie Ty Lawson who was passed over by so many teams who thought he didn't have an NBA body or an NBA game.
And so on and so on.
The feel good stories here in Denver are endless, but they don't automatically translate into wins. Starting Thursday night in Cleveland, let's hope that the greatest feel good story in Nuggets history is about to unfold.
SCOUTING THE CAVALIERS...
-The Cavs peanut gallery insisting on a trade: When you're 43-11, it's hard to argue for an upgrade. And yet the entire NBA world was convinced that LeBron James was incapable of winning a ring without a second All-Star caliber player beside him (even though he plays with three former All-Stars in Mo Williams, Shaquille O'Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas). After weeks of speculation, the Cavs finally pulled the trigger on a deal sending Big Z away for Antawn Jamison, an All-Star player who needs a lot of shots. It will be interesting to see if Cavs coach Mike Brown can make this work with under 30 games left to play in the regular season.
-Anderson Varejao: If Varejao played on my team, I'd love him for baiting opposing power forwards and centers into unnecessary fouls. But since he's not on my team, he's a flopping pain-in-the-ass who drives me nuts for baiting opponents into fouls.
-LeBron James if he's leaves Cleveland: The Cavs organization has literally done everything and anything possible to surround LBJ with a championship caliber squad, evident yet again with the Jamison acquisition. Sure LBJ could bolt for New York, but did he notice that Donnie Walsh passed on Brandon Jennings and Ty Lawson in favor of Jordan Hill (already rumored to be on the trading block) and that the Knicks don't even have their own lottery pick this summer?
-LeBron James: 29.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 8.3 apg (career high), 1.6 spg, 50.6% FG shooting (career high) and 36.1% three-point shooting (career high). Are you @#$%& kidding me?!
-Shaquille O'Neal: I gave O'Neal a hard time earlier in the season and even stupidly suggested the Nuggets consider trading K-Mart for him to ditch K-Mart's contract. But after taking a half season to get into shape, Shaq is producing making it very difficult for teams to score against or defend the Cavaliers. In the last 24 games, the soon-to-be 38 year old Shaq has scored in double digits 22 times while finally calling out Dwight Howard for ripping off his Superman routine. You gotta love the Diesel.
-Zydrunas Ilgauskas: Has a career starting center ever accepted a back up role so gracefully? This is why I cringed when I heard that the Big Z and his expiring contract were shipped out for Jamison. Lest we forget that LBJ loves this guy. Even worse, does this mean no more Big Z puppet ads? I love those!