It was weird coming to Denver and not seeing that headband and No. 15 jersey on the floor. Carmelo Anthony is in New York, struggling mightily with the Knicks and unable to capture the glory -- at least so far -- that he sought when he forced his way out of a town that once adored him.
His former team, however, is rolling, playing hard, playing together and shunning individual accolades for team success. They are aggressive on both ends of the floor, attack the basket, share the ball, shoot open threes and regularly obliterate inferior visitors.
The Wizards knew going into Friday’s game that they were going to have to ready -- for the altitude, the pressure and for the ambush. The Nuggets brought it early, using a 15-0 first quarter run to take a 30-16 lead and the Wizards out of the game. They scored at least 30 points in three quarters, shot 49.4 percent and cruised to a relatively easy 114-94 victory. The Nuggets are now 12-4 without Anthony.
“The ball don’t stick as much no more,” Nick Young said of the Nuggets. “They got a lot of players, a lot of depth, players that know how to play, shoot the ball. They’re going to be a dangerous team come playoffs. They are just gelling right now.”
J.R. Smith and Danilo Gallinari were firing three-pointers from wherever they felt comfortable, Al Harrington and Ty Lawson were driving to the basket for easy layups, and Chris “Birdman” Andersen -- and his colorful tattoos -- were flying to the rim for putback dunks. The Wizards trailed by 25 with 2 minutes 32 seconds left in the second period and went to the locker room down 64-45.
Coach Flip Saunders let his young team have it, unwilling to accept such a mediocre effort. “He said ‘Y’all just going to have to man up,’ ” Jordan Crawford said. “He tried to give us all these man-to-man defense. He said, ‘We’re not going to be a good team until y’all man up individually and stop letting players get past y’all.’ By him saying that just proved, we got to step up.”
After Saunders challenged his players, they played well in the third quarter, outscoring the Nuggets 22-18 and getting within 80-67 after Trevor Booker scored five straight points. But they didn’t have enough -- even with the return of Young -- to sustain the run and were down by 26 within a few minutes.
The problem that the Wizards faced, have faced all season and will continue to face the rest of the season, is that they are at such a disparity talent-wise that they have to constantly play at a high level simply to be competitive. Some teams can win games without playing hard, with superior talent and/or depth allowing them to get victories on nights when the effort is all the way there.
The Wizards don’t have such luck. They have to be way on at all times or they can be embarrassed. But they won’t allow that youth, inexperience or lack of talent to be an excuse. “That’s tough as rookies, but hey, coming into this league as rookies, we knew once we put our name in that draft and got put on the team, nobody cares if you’re a rookie or a veteran,” John Wall said. “We know every night you go out there, you have to bring it every night to give yourself a chance.”
Wall was most upset that the Wizards had such a disappointing performance two nights after pushing the Los Angeles Clippers to double overtime. The Nuggets are much better than the Clippers, but the effort wasn’t close to being the same.
“I thought we took a step back,” Saunders said. “We weren’t communicating enough. We were reacting instead of being more aggressive. I just told them to be more aggressive. The one thing, as a coach, sometimes you forget when you have a lot of young guys, a lot of rookies, when they come in to an arena, it is the first time they have been there. So, the environment is an adjustment. Sometimes they get caught up in the different environment.”
Six of the 11 players who saw the floor for the Wizards were rookies. John Wall said he was worried about playing at Pepsi Center for the first time after hearing how the altitude can lead to exhaustion relatively quickly. “It wasn’t too bad, except for that last stretch in the second quarter, when I started scoring and got to the free throw line. That’s when I really felt it,” Wall said. “I thought it was going to be, after two times down the court, I was going to be tired. But you get used to it, but it wasn’t too bad.”
Young, though, admitted that he struggled with the altitude some after coming back from a five-game absence. Wall scored 10 points but missed 11 of his 15 shots, although he did have a nice reverse layup in the fourth quarter. “This is probably the worst place to come back because of the altitude,” Saunders said.
The beat down was bad enough, but the Wizards were also worried about Booker, who scored 10 points with 10 rebounds but had to leave in the fourth quarter with a foot injury. He had an X-ray after the game but the Wizards didn’t reveal the results. His availability for Sunday’s game against Golden State is in some doubt, since he moved around with a noticeable limp in the locker room after the game.
With or without Booker, the Wizards realize that they have to at least come to play against the Warriors and Utah on Monday. “Teams kind of have confidence against us already because they know our record, but that’s going to make us better. If we win the game, that means we played a great game,” Crawford said. “It’s really a small margin of error, we just got to compete these last two games on the road.”