Since his arrival in 2005, George Karl and the Nuggets have had an uncanny ability to finish seasons as the hottest team in the NBA only to become early exit victims in the post-season.
When George Karl took over the coaching reins of the Denver Nuggets from Michael Cooper on January 29th, 2005, he led the Nuggets to a hard-fought road victory over the Bucks in Milwaukee, Karl's previous coaching stop. Including that victory, the Nuggets would win 32 of their last 40 games, the best finish in NBA history for a mid-season coaching replacement. Their reward? A seventh seed and a first round date with the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs, who beat the Nuggets in five games, including back-to-back victories in Denver.
Two seasons later - in a season nearly lost thanks to the "Madison Square Garden Melee" that resulted in major suspensions to Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith and led to the franchise altering Allen Iverson trade - Karl's Nuggets would finish the 2006-07 campaign by winning 10 of their last 11 games and were regarded as the most dangerous team entering the playoffs. Again, the opponent would be the eventual champion Spurs (this time as a three seed) and again the Spurs would dispense with the Nuggets easily in five games without the Nuggets winning a single home game in the series. Karl used Smith as a scapegoat in that series, famously proclaiming that the then-22 year old kid was "done".
Wrapping up the 2007-08 season, the Nuggets won 13 of their final 19 games just to get into the playoffs, and again were considered a "hot" team. But as a 50-win eighth seed, the Nuggets got swept by the Western Conference Champion Los Angeles Lakers in a series marred by Melo's public questioning of Karl's coaching and the notable benching of Iverson in Game 3 that led to the mercurial superstar pouting and questioning his coach's tactics. (Ironically, it was Smith and Linas Kleiza only who showed up in that series.)
Well, the more things change with this Nuggets roster the more they stay the same.
Entering the 2011 playoffs, the Nuggets were again the NBA's hottest team, winning 18 of 25 games since trading Melo in late February and being "the team nobody wanted to play." And yet here we are in that all-too-familiar spot of being on the verge of another colossal playoff disappointment, with Smith again being blamed for a loss and against a team that's never won a playoff series no less. Here's hoping they'll put at least one game in the win column tonight, but it's likely this series is over in five games at the most.
The only time a hot Nuggets regular season finish carried over into the playoffs was in 2008-09 when the Nuggets won 14 of their final 17 games and rode that momentum to within a few bad in-bounds passes of beating the Lakers in the conference finals.
So why do our ferocious finishes rarely carry over into the post-season? I have a few theories.
First of all, down the stretch of an NBA season many teams find themselves in two modes: if they're really good they're resting starters and if they're really bad they're tanking it for more NBA Draft Lottery ping pong balls. The Nuggets, conversely, have always had something to play for down the stretch these past few seasons as home court is so imperative for Denver in a post-season series, so I suspect we have picked up lots of wins against those playing for nothing. The playoffs, of course, are a different matter as the elite teams play all their starters heavy minutes.
Secondly, at the tail end of a long NBA season anyone playing a back-to-back at Denver is toast. Conversely, in the first round of the playoffs, the breaks between games are so long that it negates whatever advantage Denver has at home as opposing teams not only get to rest, but they get to acclimate to Denver's altitude ahead of each game at Pepsi Center.
And thirdly, the tactics Karl astutely deploys in the regular season (remember, not only does Karl have 1,036 regular season coaching victories but he was won nearly 60% of the regular season games he has ever coached, a remarkable number) that seem to catch teams off guard just don't work in the post-season, notably the Nuggets over-dependence on fastbreak points and transition basketball. The playoffs are won with stingy defense and disciplined halfcourt offensive sets, something the Nuggets have never had regardless of who's coaching the team. If you don't believe me, just look at how well Melo's undisciplined, shot-happy New York Knicks did against the Boston Celtics in Round 1. (On a side note, how pathetic is it that the only joy Nuggets fans will derive from the 2011 playoffs will be knowing Melo got swept?)
If (note that I didn't use "after") the Nuggets lose to the Thunder, the George Karl apologists in the local sports media will argue that the Nuggets weren't favored to win any of the five first round series they've lost with Karl presiding as coach in the first place, rendering whatever the Nuggets did in the regular season meaningless. But while this argument may have some merit, I'll continue to argue that Karl and the Nuggets are responsible to deliver victories in home playoff games.
After all, for a team that can rack up win after win after win to wrap up the regular season, I don't think it's too much to ask to see a home playoff victory once in a while.
On to the links...
Facing elimination, Nuggets try to regroup - The Denver Post
Lindsay Jones talks to George Karl about the 0-3 hole the Nuggets find themselves in, and Karl compares the situation to his 1996 Seattle Supersonics, the only team in NBA history not to get swept in an NBA Finals after being down 0-3.
Kiszla: Nuggets can't avoid harsh truth - The Denver Post
Mark Kiszla writes about the Nuggets soon-to-be first round exit, and talks a lot of trash about the Thunder along the way...
Denver Post columnist: The Thunder are ‘hotheads,’ Durant ‘soft’ | Daily Thunder.com
...which didn't go unnoticed by the folks at Daily Thunder, a popular Thunder blog. They've gone as far as to post Kiz's email on their site. Even Jeff Morton's great interview with those guys last week won't overcome these ill feelings towards Denver.
Krieger: Melo trade taking a toll - The Denver Post
Dave Krieger finally checks in during the playoffs and wonders aloud but a different outcome if Melo were still here.
Ibaka emerging as potential third star for Thunder | NBA.com
Chris Tomasson writes about the amazing impact Serge Ibaka is having on this series and on his team.
Down 3-0, Nuggets facing another first-round exit - NBA - SI.com
Karl tries to explain the Nuggets 0-3 hole, citing "matchups and circumstances" among other reasons.