Anthony and Nuggets Finally Break Through

By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, May 19, 2009

It's rare that an NBA team catches fire late and threatens to run away with a conference, perhaps even the league. But the Denver Nuggets are making such a threat. Suddenly, as the conference championship series begin, the Nuggets look every bit the equal of the favored Lakers and Cavaliers. It's Denver that's got scorers, rebounders, defenders, depth, the requisite floor general and a coach with NBA Finals experience.

It's Denver that's won 22 of its last 27 games, Denver that had the best field goal defense of any team in the Western Conference entering the playoffs, Denver that's playing with a purpose and confidence that leads you to say, "Tell me again why the Lakers are supposed to win this series?"

The only thing Denver doesn't have is pedigree. The Lakers have Kobe, the Cavaliers have LeBron. The Nuggets try to convince anybody who'll listen that they're a team full of reclamation projects, and perhaps they are, which is what makes their appearance in the Western Conference finals, which begin tonight in Los Angeles, such a great playoff contrast.

Mostly, it's a bunch of guys who've been close enough to be teased by the championship or simply discarded. George Karl has had his heart broken in the conference finals in Seattle and Milwaukee, and he led the SuperSonics to the 1996 NBA Finals, where they lost to Chicago. Kenyon Martin was a starter on two New Jersey Nets teams that lost in the Finals in consecutive years. A couple of years ago, J.R. Smith was outright cut by the Bulls, simply told to get lost. A guy now known league-wide as "The Birdman" nearly lost his career to drug use. Dahntay Jones might be the least-recognizable Duke player to ever start in the NBA.

Even the team's two biggest stars will try to sell you on the notion that they're a couple of afterthoughts. Chauncey Billups, even though he wears a championship ring from the 2004 Detroit Pistons, won't forget that he was on five different teams his first five years in the league, and was tossed out by the Pistons just this past November, altering the course of Denver's season and the big picture in the Western Conference at the very least.

And Carmelo Anthony, for all that critics say he isn't, could soon wind up on a teeny-tiny list of players who've won the NCAA championship, an Olympic gold medal and an NBA title.

Yet, as Anthony said in a conversation Sunday night: "Oh yeah, I always feel underrated. I understand you have to go far in the playoffs to get that level of respect. But that's just the chip I carry around on my shoulder."

Anthony doesn't waste time playing the silly I-don't-care game. He cares deeply, some have said too much, about how he stacks up with his 2003 draft mates, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. "Yes, I do compare," he said. "We talk about it all the time. D-Wade got his championship first. LeBron took three years to get to the playoffs, but then the next year [2007] he got all the way to the NBA Finals. Me . . . it took me five years just to get to the second round. It was a longer walk for me. And getting swept by the Lakers last year was really difficult."

But Anthony, unlike the rest of his teammates, could use the Olympics to get over last year's playoff disappointment. Anthony looked around at the players assembled, which included LeBron, Kobe, Wade and Chris Paul, and decided, "We've got enough scoring here" and for the first time challenged himself to be a great defender. Turned out to be a good thing since the international teams had Dirk Nowitzki, Luis Scola, and Pau and Marc Gasol playing power forward, opposite Anthony. "After the Olympics, I just remember thinking, 'Why not bring this back to my own team?' " Anthony said. "It's always been to a lot of people about what I didn't do. So I said: 'If I need to rebound better, I will. If I need to pass it more, if I need to play better defense, okay, I'll do it. I know I've had seasons where I score more, but I think this has been, by far, my best season."

It's been an even better postseason for Anthony. His shooting percentage is up, three-point shooting percentage is up, free throw shooting percentage is up, steals are up, blocked shots are up, turnovers are down and assists are up. And his all-around approach to the game and attitude are what a star's should be. Remember, Anthony is still a week away from turning 25. He and Karl seem to have found a peaceful co-existence. "I feel George and I have turned the corner," he said. "I think we got to a place of me letting him coach me and him letting me be the player I can be."

And if the relationship with Karl has taken some time, and is still a work in progress, accepting Billups as the team's unquestioned floor leader took zero adjustment. "I told Chauncey when the trade was made, 'Look, it might be my team but I want you to run it.' I'm not going to cry about Chauncey being tough on me. He's what I needed."

Clearly, Billups is what the entire team needed. He functions as a co-manager with Karl in every important way, and shows how few true leaders there are in the NBA. The Pistons tanked without him; the Nuggets soared with him. The Nuggets, individually, seem flammable, especially Martin and Smith. Billups keeps it all from raging out of control . . . or at least he has to this point. The Nuggets were previously a wild-eyed bunch, but Billups has successfully channeled all that energy.

Folks around the league have been waiting for the Nuggets to hit a bump in the road and immediately revert to their old form and implode. But Karl indicated in a recent conversation that he didn't see any hint of the storm clouds, though you wonder how the Nuggets might respond to a bad or emotional loss, which they haven't had in these playoffs. "We had some good games and some winning streaks," Anthony said. "But we really started to believe, 'Hey, we've got the pieces right here right now to be great.' We were playing New Orleans down there [March 25] and we really needed to win. We were trying to hold on to the number two seed in the West. It was going back and forth. . . . That night, in New Orleans, our mind-set and focus just seemed to kick in, and we've had it from then on."

Jones, the Dukie, began taking on the opponent's best wing scorer with some success, which means he'll get a shot at guarding Kobe Bryant in the conference finals. Nene, finally healthy, is just too athletic for most centers to handle at either end of the floor. Smith can still shoot Denver into or out of games, but he's less volatile and a matchup nightmare off the bench. Martin, even on injured legs that have robbed him of his explosion, is still happy to be the enforcer. And Chris Andersen, the 6-foot-10 Birdman, who was second in the league in blocked shots while playing only 20 minutes a game off the bench, "is our unsung hero," according to Anthony.

Billups runs it all, deciding on the fly whether he needs to score, facilitate, make demands, back off. . . . When it's all going, as it has almost without fail since the last week of March, the Nuggets are a handful.

Okay, the Hornets and Mavericks aren't the Lakers. Then again, the matchups don't favor the Lakers any more than they did New Orleans and Dallas. If the Lakers can't guard the Rockets with no Yao Ming and no Tracy McGrady, how are they going to guard Anthony, Billups, Nene, Smith, Martin and Linus Kleiza?

For the first time, Anthony is on equal postseason footing with Kobe and LeBron. Suddenly, it's not at all far-fetched to think the Nuggets might beat the Lakers to reach the NBA Finals. More than a few people think Denver has the better team. "It's a long way from Year Number 1," Anthony said, "and for that matter, a long way from last year, too."

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