By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
DENVER, May 26 -- Stroll around the Denver Nuggets' half-oval shaped locker room and it's impossible to go two or three steps without encountering a player who has overcome some hardship, major injury, health concern or personal struggle. The eclectic mixture of misfits has come together this season, bonded through challenges and chips, troubles and tattoos -- and stands two wins from advancing to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.
"A lot of these guys carry around a lot of weight, a lot of chips on their shoulders to try to reinvent themselves in a positive light in the league," point guard Chauncey Billups said a day after the Nuggets defeated the Lakers, 120-101, on Monday, setting up a critical Game 5 on Wednesday in Los Angeles. "It's kind of a common denominator for this team. Everybody being given up on and going through their tough phase. And, we've all come together for the right cause."
Start in one corner with Kenyon Martin, a power forward who has overcome microfracture surgeries on both knees. Move two stalls over to find J.R. Smith, an exciting yet frustrating talent discarded by two teams in the same summer and less than two years removed from a personal tragedy. Next to him is Dahntay Jones, a defensive-minded guard who was salvaged off the scrap heap after spending time in the NBA Developmental League last season.
Then, take two steps over to Carmelo Anthony, the superstar talent who always seemed to stand in his own way with some questionable decisions. Next to him is Chris Andersen, back in the NBA after a two-year drug suspension.
A few stalls over from Andersen is center Nene, who battled testicular cancer last season and had already dealt with right knee surgery. And at the corner stall opposite Martin is the team's leader, Chauncey Billups, who bounced around six teams before finding a home and championship in Detroit -- only to get shipped off again to a hometown team that had served as one of his previous stops.
"We've all had our struggles. We've battled off the court in our personal lives with a lot of adversities. We kind of throw that in our games as basketball players," said Andersen, the backup center nicknamed "Birdman," with his wild hair, colorful tattoos and arm flaps. "When you go through life struggles like that and you apply it to basketball skills, of course, we're going to be emotional on the court. We're going to have celebrations."
Nuggets Coach George Karl said that there were times on Monday when he wanted to celebrate with his emotional players. Back in the conference finals for the first time in eight years, Karl admitted to some difficult years that came as the result of a brief change in coaching philosophy -- going from defensive-minded to run-and-gun offense -- and a personal battle with prostate cancer.
"I can't deny I'm excited to be back here," said Karl, who returned to a defensive approach this season at the urging of assistant Tim Grgurich. "It's fun. We have a lot of good stories. Probably a resurrection of half the team, half the coaches."
Billups's arrival in early November -- in a trade that sent Allen Iverson to Detroit -- is credited with helping to turn this collection of colorful characters into a cohesive unit with legitimate championship aspirations. He gave Karl a stabilizer on the floor and a player willing to convey the need to defend, rebound and share the ball. The 32-year-old point guard is familiar with playing on a team of former castoffs and rejects motivated by slights. And, this Nuggets team shares a lot of similarities with the Pistons team he led to the title in 2004. They both won 54 games, finished as the second seed in the conference, and just like Larry Brown, Karl is a North Carolina alum with recent experience coaching Iverson.
"I see a lot of similarities, man," Billups said. "This team is probably a little younger than the team we had in '04, but just as motivated."
Martin reached the NBA Finals in two of his first three seasons in New Jersey, but over the past six years, with five in Denver, he had to overcome two knee surgeries, the weight of an exorbitant $92 million contract, and a short-lived feud with Karl that could have led to his exodus -- except few teams were willing to pay his salary.
"It goes to show you that you can't take nothing for granted," Martin said. "You might go to a bad team, might be injuries, might be the luck of the draw of making the playoffs and not getting over that hump. I done had a couple of those. You never know when you're going to get back. You've got to enjoy it, cherish it."
A former flagrant foul fiend whose girlfriend's lip print is tattooed on his neck, Martin has embraced his tough-guy reputation. And, after Lakers Coach Phil Jackson derided Jones's blatant trip of Kobe Bryant in the third quarter as "unacceptable" and "unsportsmanlike basketball," Martin shouted to Jones, "You made it, dog! You're a dirty player!"
Smith, who had 24 points off the bench in Game 4, drove New Orleans Coach Byron Scott so mad with his inconsistent play that the Hornets forced the former first-round pick to Chicago in a deal for Tyson Chandler in 2006. The Bulls didn't waste much time dumping Smith on the Nuggets for Howard Eisley and two second-round picks. The 23-year-old Smith is erratic on the court. Off the court, he has had to deal with the death of childhood friend Andre Bell, after Smith drove past a stop sign and collided with another car.
"Being that we've all been through so much, I think every individual has a wonderful story and to put them together, it makes a great team," Smith said.
Anthony never dealt with the sort of adversity that plagued Andersen or Nene, but his many public mishaps and first-round exits sullied his reputation, raised doubts about his ability to lead a franchise and had the team listening to trade offers last summer. "I think this season, everything has been smooth sailing," Anthony said.
"Everything has been on an even keel, because the only thing I had to do was focus on basketball. It's been a great run, but we still have a lot more work to do."Jackson Fined for Ref Criticism
The NBA has fined Lakers Coach Phil Jackson $25,000 for his public criticisms of the referees following Game 4 of the Western Conference finals. The Lakers organization was also fined $25,000.
-- MAVERICKS: A woman who said she was carrying star Dirk Nowitzki's child was pregnant after she was booked into the Dallas County jail on May 6, according to a newspaper report.
-- CELTICS: F Kevin Garnett had surgery on his right knee after missing all of the playoffs.
-- From News Services