By any measure, the Nuggets have been very successful since the arrival of Carmelo Anthony in 2003. Seven straight playoff appearances, three straight 50-plus win seasons and NBA relevancy - for a franchise no one cared about for so long, even in Denver - is nothing to sneer at or take for granted. I certainly don't. I know that if Kiki Vandeweghe drafted Darko Milicic instead of Melo in 2003 that the debate here at Denver Stiffs today would be "should we draft John Wall or Evan Turner...and how will the NBA screw us out of the first overall pick again?" instead of questioning if this team has the heart and courage to become the ninth in NBA history to overcome a 3-1 playoff deficit.
But if there's been one glaring black mark on Melo and the Nuggets record since 2003, it's that not only haven't they won a playoff elimination game, but most of those games haven't even been close.
In 2004, Melo was (wisely) held out of Game 5 at Minnesota with a sprained knee, and the Nuggets lost by a respectable 11 points to the Timberwolves, thanks to a spirited effort from Marcus Camby (21 points, 15 rebounds and two blocks), Andre Miller (21 points, six rebounds, three assists and three steals), Voshon Lenard (17 points and two steals) and Earl Boykins (19 points). Incidentally, it's largely thanks to the solid play of Camby and Miller that the injury-riddled Trail Blazers have a fighting chance against the Suns in the playoffs this year.
In 2005, the Nuggets lost 99-89 in Game 5 at San Antonio to the eventual NBA champion Spurs. Melo had a decent game, making nine of his 19 shot attempts, but he only got to the free throw line four times. His teammates weren't much better, as the Spurs held the Nuggets to 43.9% shooting and took over the game in the fourth quarter.
In 2006, the Nuggets lost 101-83 to the Clippers in Game 5, ensuring the Clippers only playoff victory in their Southern California franchise history. Melo had a rough night (I remember, I was there), making just eight of his 24 shot attempts while his team collectively shot a putrid 37% from the field. It should also be noted that Kenyon Martin and his crappy attitude sunk this series long before Game 5 after squabbling with head coach George Karl and his teammates during halftime of Game 2.
In 2007, the Nuggets lost yet again to the Spurs at San Antonio in Game 5. This time, the final score was 93-78 (the "78" isn't a typo). In that game, Melo shot eight-for-20 and had four turnovers, but was outdone by Allen Iverson's six-for-22 shooting night and Camby's two-for-10 night (although at least Camby tried to make up for it with 19 rebounds and five blocks). That series was also marred by Karl calling out J.R. Smith for "disrespecting the game" that led to a DNP-CD for Smith in the critical Game 5.
In 2008 (do we really have to bring this one up?!), the Nuggets had their first playoff elimination game of the Melo Era played at Pepsi Center when the Lakers looked to sweep the Nuggets in Game 4. As we wish we didn't remember, Game 3 was the "we quit" game and the Nuggets - to their credit - showed no quit in Game 4. They kept it close until the end of the fourth quarter, but it just wasn't meant to be. Melo would finish the game shooting eight-for-20 to go along with three turnovers and making matters worse, he fouled out with over two minutes to play. J.R. at least attempted to make up for his shoddy 2007 playoff performance by delivering 26 points, three assists and two steals off the bench in Game 4.
And of course just last year, in 2009, the Nuggets laid an egg during yet another playoff elimination game. This time Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals when the Lakers walloped us 119-92 at home. The Nuggets (and the fans at Pepsi Center, unfortunately) were never in it from the start. Down 13 at halftime, the Nuggets never recovered and wandered aimlessly throughout the second half like a boxer that had just been punched too many times. Melo got to the free throw line an admirable eight times in that game, but shot poorly from the field, making only six shots in 17 tries. Meanwhile, Chauncey Billups had an awful two-for-seven shooting night to go along with five turnovers (and a respectable nine assists) and Nene scored a mere eight points on three-for-seven shooting. That game was a collective no-show.
So what's the point of bringing up all this past heartache and embarrassment? The point is that if the fans remember all these failures as vividly as I do, I can only assume that the players and coaching staff does, as well. I hope the Nuggets have been storing up years and years of playoff elimination failure as motivation for Wednesday night and, hopefully, Friday night as well. Because regardless of where the motivation comes from, the Nuggets have to find an energy source...and fast.
Fair or not, until this incarnation of the Nuggets - the best we've seen since the days when Alex English and Fat Lever wore rainbow jerseys and Doug Moe taught me every bad word in the English language (and some other languages, too, probably) - wins a playoff elimination game and gets to the NBA Finals, they'll simply go down in the history books as an afterthought team that had a nice run. You know, alongside the likes of the 1979-1987 Milwaukee Bucks, or the 1985-1989 Atlanta Hawks, or the 1988-1993 Cleveland Cavaliers, or the 1996-2001 Miami Heat, or the 2000-2006 Sacramento Kings, or the (gulp) 1981-1990 Denver Nuggets. Good teams all, to be sure, but none of which ever even competed for an NBA championship.
Plenty of teams in NBA history, when facing a 3-1 deficit as our Nuggets are, have won Game 5 at home. But as has been mentioned ad nauseum here and elsewhere, only eight have gone on to win a playoff series. Fortunately for us, our own Chauncey Billups was on one of those teams; the 2002-03 Detroit Pistons who overcame Orlando's 3-1 lead and Tracy McGrady's series victory guarantee to pull off the unthinkable. In Games 6 and 7 of that series, Chauncey had 40 and 37 points, respectively. 40 and 37! In other words, when the chips were down, Chauncey delivered and his Pistons eventually marched into the Eastern Conference Finals, tee'ing up an NBA Championship the following season.
Seven years later, Chauncey's new team could do the same. But it won't be Chauncey who'll be depended upon to come up big in Game 5, and if we're fortunate enough to get there, 6 and 7 as well. Chauncey has logged too many seasons and too many minutes this season to be our savior now. This time around, it will be on #15 to pull off the virtually impossible. The unthinkable again on Chauncey's watch.
As I stated earlier this week, we're going to need one of Melo's all-time great performances to give the Nuggets a fighting chance at becoming that elusive ninth team. His teammates - Chauncey included - are struggling mightily, his coach is overmatched and overwhelmed, the referees are doing him no favors and the Jazz are playing like, well, a damn good basketball team.
It all begins with Game 5, of course. Can he do it? Can they do it? I guess we'll find out tonight.
More than ever before...