Well, if you watched last Monday’s dismal 109-93 loss to the Dallas Mavericks, you saw that things have changed for the worse in Denver and it has come at the wrong time. At stake in Monday’s game was a playoff tiebreaker, which the Mavericks took handily. More importantly, Dallas distanced itself from the Nuggets for the No. 2 spot in the West; the Nuggets dropped to the No. 5 spot. Monday night’s lackadaisical performance capped the end of a long and hard road trip, where Denver went 1-4, losing to New York, Boston, Orlando, and then Dallas.
The Nuggets’ slump is certainly related to the absence of Head Coach George Karl, who is battling neck and throat cancer. It was reported in The Denver Post early last week that Karl has eight more radiation treatments and one more chemotherapy session remaining. In a blog, Karl’s life partner, Kim Van Deraa said, with the end of treatments near, Karl is looking forward to the recovery process, adding, “We know it won’t be easy but we are ready to finish the fight. George’s mouth is in a lot of pain, so we just try to keep him comfortable by managing the pain with his meds.”
It’s hard to blame the team for lacking any sort of spark the past three or four weeks. The guy who has organized this motley basketball team and brought it to success is very ill and I am sure it’s hard for everyone on the team to stay focused right now. If we didn't realize that Karl was the wind in the Nugget’s sails when he first brought them to elite NBA status, we certainly know it now. According to The Post, Karl won’t likely return to the bench until mid-April when the playoffs start.
As we watch we watch this (hopefully brief) downfall of the Nuggets, we can’t underestimate the loss of thug-man Kenyon Martin and the effect his hard-nosed and physical defense has had on the team’s defense and rebounding capabilities. Out with a left knee injury, Martin’s absence was obvious Monday night when Dirk Nowitzki scored 34 points, completing the second triple-double of his career. Without Martin, Nowitzki took all the shots he wanted and Nene was of no help.
While the Nuggets as a whole are tough and physical, Martin brings a certain, essential energy to the floor. A couple of jackasses, who I call my friends, don’t like Martin at all. They believe he is just a thug and doesn’t really do much on the court other than draw technical fouls. I, on the other hand, know that when Martin is being effective, Denver’s chances of winning are greatest. He’s a double-double machine and the team’s best defender. When he’s down low working for rebounds, the attention is again on him, leaving shooting opportunities for Chauncey Billups, Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith. (Both Anthony and Billups scored for a combined 6-of-30 Monday night.)
Believe me, if the Nuggets are going to make a run in the playoffs, Denver needs to either find a way to make up for Martin’s absence or somehow return him to the lineup. Martin is the thug needed to beat Dallas, Phoenix and L.A. It’s that simple. Martin, however, says he isn’t sure if his bum knee will be healed in time for the playoffs.
Denver has seven regular season games left before the start of the playoffs and will face a tough Portland team tonight, followed by the Clippers on Saturday. Next week the Nuggets need to be on point when they take on both San Antonio and the Lakers at home.
“It was a tough trip for us as far as games go,” Anthony told The Post after their four-game loss on the road. “But we're OK. There's nothing to panic about. We'll be all right. I know what type of team we have. I know what type of guys we have. We're a good team.”
This group of players, when playing their best team basketball can beat anyone at any time – especially in a five-game series. Let’s just hope they can find their way out of the dark hole they're in now.