DENVER, March 21 -- Denver Nuggets Coach George Karl had already felt a bit guilty for ripping into his team for what he thought were too many defensive lapses during an 11-point win against Milwaukee the previous night, so he wasn't planning to follow his tongue-lashing with a time-consuming practice on Monday. Karl was even willing to give his team an out: Take one shot from half court; and if you make it, you get the day off. Miss it, let's go to work.
Now, this wasn't an easy out. In his more than 17-year NBA coaching career with Cleveland, Golden State, Seattle and Milwaukee, Karl said he offers this challenge at least "five to 10 times a season," and his team always winds up practicing. So, when Nuggets reserve guard DerMarr Johnson -- without any warmup -- buried the shot, Karl stood frozen. "That's the first time I ever had a guy make it," Karl said, shaking his head. "He made it. By the time I turned around, half the guys were already down the stairs. So, it's good. We're enjoying the game of basketball. Sometimes, coaches over-coach and overwork. I'm not worried about it coming back to bite me."
Why should he? Ever since Karl came out of "vacation or retirement, whatever it was" to replace Michael Cooper as head coach of the Nuggets on Jan. 29, the team has enjoyed a charmed existence. "The confidence is high," forward Kenyon Martin told reporters after the Nuggets won for the 11th time in 12 games on Sunday. "It's just getting higher."
When Karl took over, the team was eight games below .500, 11th in the Western Conference and six games out of the eighth playoff spot -- despite a roster that included Carmelo Anthony, Marcus Camby, Andre Miller and Martin, one of the biggest catches in free agency last offseason. In 23 games, Karl already has led the team to more wins (18) than it won in the first 42 (17) under former coaches Jeff Bzdelik and Cooper. Now, the Nuggets are 35-30 and 2½ games ahead of the Minnesota Timberwolves for the final playoff seed as they prepare to host the Washington Wizards Tuesday night.
"They were in a bad way with losing and it's hard. It's hard to keep your pride, to keep your confidence, to keep your energy to perform," Karl said of the situation he stepped into. "I think they've persevered through that and now they can see the sunshine. It's fun. And don't get me wrong, this game can be real mean and it can be real happy. Sometimes you can do it all in the same season."
It was a great marriage of sorts: an underachieving team with several talented individual parts and a veteran coach with a reputation for quick fixes who was unsatisfied with his life as an ESPN basketball analyst and starving to get back into the game.
"I've always had a great passion for the game. It's like falling back in love," Karl said. "I love the gym and I love the competition and I'm excited about a team that I thought was pretty good when I got here and is better than I thought it was. The challenge of putting a team together in the middle of the season is not the easiest thing in the world."
The only thing Karl has missed since he got back into coaching? "I can't go to the movies," Karl said, laughing.
Karl realized that he would have to change the Nuggets' approach on both ends of the court. He felt the ball needed to move around more on offense and that his team needed to put an emphasis on defense. Under Karl, the Nuggets have shown a marked improvement in almost every category -- points per game (94.9 to 100.3), field goal percentage (44.3 to 46.2), fast-break points (16.5 to 21.2) and opponents' points per game (97.2 to 92.9).
After the all-star break, Karl bumped former assistant Cooper into an undefined role with the team and replaced him with former Nuggets coach Doug Moe, one of the winningest coaches in franchise history. Since implementing Moe's motion offense, the Nuggets have gone 11-1. "He's going to let you play," Miller said of Karl. "He doesn't like you to stand around and hold the ball, and if you play defense he'll keep you on the court. He'll give you some freedom but he's not going to let you take advantage of it."
Not even the team's star, Anthony, whom Karl benched for the final 17 minutes of the loss against Phoenix after he went 2 for 10 for just nine points. "I think the biggest thing is we have to work. We have to come together," Karl said of his relationship with Anthony. "He's got to do his job and I've got to do my job and in the end, we're going to respect one another a great deal. Young players make mistakes and young players don't have the game plan for their career. They must learn."
Anthony responded to his benching by scoring 25 points in a win over Charlotte. Karl compares his relationship with Anthony to those he had with Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton in Seattle. "Gary, Shawn and I battled. But it's basically because I was pushing them to be special," Karl said.
"Carmelo, I'm not happy with him being a good player on a bad team. That's not going to make it. Sorry. It's being a good player on a good team, a good player on a winning team and being a good player on a playoff team and a good player on a winning playoff team. The goals are championships."
For now, it's simply making it to the playoffs for the second year in a row. "This team has taken a bad start and now has an energized finish," he said. "Let's see if we can make something happen."