Part III: Inbounding Lob Pass

The Nuggets headed into the 2008-09 season with the same core intact from the season before, but that didn’t last long. After just three games, there was another big trade. Iverson was sent to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for hometown hero Chauncey Billups and former Nugget Antonio McDyess.

For that matter, Billups was a former Nugget, too. He was taken third overall by the Celtics in that Tim Duncan draft in 1997 – many of us had been hoping that the Nuggets could draft him if they couldn’t get Duncan – but the early part of his career was spent bouncing around a lot. He didn’t even finish his first season in Boston. He was traded to the Raptors after 51 games, and played for them until midway through the 1998-99 season, when he was brought to Denver. He wasn’t able to help the Nuggets at all as they stumbled through those brutal seasons bridging the 20th and 21st centuries, and got traded again to Minnesota, and after two seasons there, to the Pistons, where he won the award for Finals MVP in 2004. He did that against the hated Lakers, defeating a roster featuring Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, and also a couple of aging superstars chasing a ring, Karl Malone and Gary Payton. Billups was nicknamed Mr. Big Shot for his heroics during his Pistons run. And what’s more, he grew up in the same neighborhood as me. The King of Park Hill.

I didn’t have any special fondness for the Pistons as a franchise (I despised them during those “Bad Boys” years), but seeing them beat those Lakers was a pretty great David vs. Goliath story. So I was pretty excited to learn he was coming to play for the Nuggets. It might’ve been a redemptive story to have McDyess rejoin the team as well, but NuggLife had other plans. It turned out that he was still bitter from a ridiculous episode almost a decade prior, involving his teammates from the Suns being locked out of McNichols Arena during a blizzard.

This would end up biting the Nuggets very hard. Looking back on that now, it’s like something out of a ridiculous movie.

But first there was that incredible 2008-09 season. The Nuggets finished with a record of 54-28, which tied their best mark in their NBA history (they’d also done it in 1987-88), and luckily enough, in the spring of 2009, that record was actually good for the number two seed. It was a rare occasion where Denver had a winning road record (21-20) to go with a bunch of home wins. Billups was a calm, steady floor general who meshed extremely well with Carmelo Anthony, Nene, and Kenyon Martin. They headed into the playoffs with a lot of positive energy.

The first round, versus Chris Paul and the New Orleans Hornets, was incredible. It was the first time the Nuggets had won a series since 1994, and this time it wasn’t some nail-biting come-from-behind story. The Nuggets won the first two games at home handily (Billups led the way in game one by making eight of nine three pointers), and then narrowly lost game three on the road. And then they won game four — in New Orleans — by a score of 121-63. One hundred and twenty one to sixty three! They were five points shy of doubling the Hornets’ score. A twenty-one point win at home in game five wrapped up the series.

Round two brought Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks to town. Fourteen years later, there are two main things I remember about this series. One is the questionable call at the end of game three, where the Mavericks were trying to foul Anthony before he could take a shot, but the officials ignored the contact, and he sunk a huge 3-pointer that iced the game and all but killed the Mavs’ hopes of getting back into the series. The other memory is fuzzier now than I wish it were, but it involved a turnover by the Mavs that led to a thrilling fast break for the Nuggets that ended with a very showy dunk by JR Smith. I got so excited watching it that I suddenly found myself leaping off the sofa and pumping my fists in the air like a complete idiot. It was after this that my wife, who’d been my partner at that point for ten years, said to me “I finally understand why you’ve been following them all this time. They’re actually making you happy.”

The Nuggets suddenly found themselves in the Western Conference Finals, for the third time in franchise history, and the first time since 1984. They’d blown out their opponents in the first two rounds so convincingly that the commentators were getting pretty high on them. As the hated Lakers, the one seed, struggled with the Houston Rockets in their second round series, no less than Charles Barkley himself predicted that the Nuggets would win the title that year.

I hardly knew what to do with myself. I bought a Nuggets hat, but that wasn’t enough, so I entered into a whole alternate arena of personal fashion, and asked my wife to get me a Nuggets jersey for my birthday: a Billups number seven in powder blue. (I did already have a Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf jersey hanging in the closet, but I’d snagged that when the national anthem controversy broke out, hoping it’d become a collector’s item, and I never really wore it.) This great success was new territory for me, and I couldn’t shut up about it.

The hated Lakers finally squeaked past the Rockets in seven games, so the Nuggets would have to open the next round on the road. Before we get to those inbounding lob passes, though, there was another embarrassing NuggLife moment regarding the calendar of events at the Pepsi Center. A World Wrestling Entertainment event had been scheduled for late May, and the date conflicted with one of the Nuggets’ WCF home dates. It was all over ESPN for a couple of days. WWE president Vince McMahon came on SportsCenter at one point to be interviewed. He was fuming. “I can’t believe we have to move our event, all just because Stan Kroenke doesn’t believe in his team!” I facepalmed.

But then I put the WWE back out of my mind as the Western Conference Finals started. The Nuggets headed into LA and played toe-to-toe with the hated Lakers in game 1, trailing only by 2 points with 30 seconds remaining, when Anthony Carter hurled the inbound lob pass that was snagged by the hated Lakers’ Trevor Ariza, and the game was lost. A discouraging finish, but I really thought it was a good sign that the Nuggets were that close.

Game 2 in LA was a special thrill. It’s at this point that I will refer you to this ESPN piece about Chauncey Billups that was posted shortly before the WCF began. It’s titled “The Disposable Superstar.” There’s a wonderful bit in there about Billups playing in the Colorado State High School championship game, with his grandmother watching from the stands. At one tense moment, he was trying to make an inbounds pass, but none of his teammates could get open. Fearing a five-second violation, and noticing that his defender had his back turned, he inbounded off the defender’s back side, stepped inbounds to grab the ball, and scored a layup. His grandmother disapproved of the tomfoolery, but hey, it worked. The article goes on to detail when Billups joined the Nuggets and made an unsettling discovery about Coach Karl: “…they go over all of the team’s plays. Chauncey nods, but, inside, he has a sick feeling. For instance, the Nuggets don’t have an underneath-the-basket out-of-bounds play. This isn’t high school. He can’t throw the ball off someone’s back and dunk it. What’s going on here?”

So it just seemed kind of magical when, at a tense moment in game 2, Billups was looking to inbounds the ball, and Kobe Bryant was set up to defend the pass, but had his back turned to the ball. Billups pulled his trick again, bouncing the ball off Bryant’s back and scoring a layup. The Nuggets went on to win the game and steal home court advantage. It was just too perfect. This hometown hero, from my own neighborhood, leading the team to victory against the hated Lakers with that hilarious maneuver he’d used in the state championship game, bouncing it off the back of the league’s reigning MVP. (There were other great elements to the story, too – Carmelo finally seeing playoff success; Martin staying healthy and relishing his role as the tough guy; Chris “Birdman” Andersen bouncing back from his drug suspension and providing thrilling hustle off the bench.) This had to be it. This was going to be such an incredible story! How could a story like this end any other way than Mr. Big Shot hoisting the NBA championship trophy at a Denver victory parade?

Alas, the inbounds trick only worked once, and the Nuggets handed home court advantage back to the hated Lakers in game three when another inbounds pass play went awry, with Ariza ruining everything again. The Nuggets did manage to even things up again by winning game 4 at home, but at this point a bad feeling was setting in. How could they have let two winnable games slip away over something as routine as an inbounds pass? The hated Lakers won game five at home, and then came into Denver for game 6sixand routed the Nuggets. I couldn’t understand what happened. Why couldn’t the Nuggets even hang with them at home for game 6? Rick Reilly wrote a piece for ESPN detailing the agony. He opened it with “Dear God, what do you have against us Denver Nuggets fans?” The hated Lakers went on to win another title, at which point nearly half of the championships in the entire history of the league belonged to just them and the Boston Celtics. A lot of us were complaining at that point about the ridiculous lack of parity in the NBA. Just as I’d rooted so hard for the Sacramento Kings against the hated Lakers in the 2002 WCF, lots of people around the country had been rooting for the Nuggets in 2009. A common refrain from smug, taunting, childish, entitled Lakers fans was “Well, in the NBA, the team with the best player usually wins.” Their team was the beneficiary of an absurd amount of unfair advantage – commissioner David Stern even said out loud at one point that he wanted the Lakers in the Finals every single year – but they couldn’t hear it. Those inbounding lob passes haunted us Nuggets fans all summer. Painful NuggLife, stomping on us so hard when our hopes had gotten so high.

If only we’d known what else was in store.