Rocky Mountain Revival?

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Watching the Nuggets these days is like watching a ghost of the team they were a few months ago, when we all thought they’d be the team to challenge the Lakers in the Western Conference playoffs.

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Carmelo Anthony is still dangerous as ever. One-man-highlight-reel J.R. Smith is liable to do something that makes you jump out of your seat at any moment. And Chauncey Billups remains the steadiest of steady hands running the entire show.

And yet there is still no denying that their losses far outweigh anything they’ve done recently. The absence of head coach George Karl can’t be overstated (kudos to Adrian Dantley for the job he’s done trying to keep it all together).

Even more glaring, however, seems to be the spirit of toughness and physical thump that Kenyon Martin provides. Then last night you see Chris Andersen go down with a sprained ankle and wonder how much more can these Nuggets take?

They’ve already slipped out of that comfy spot behind the Lakers in the standings (all the way down to No. 5 as of this morning). Without any guarantee that Karl or Martin will return in top form in time for the playoffs, it’s hard to believe in a Rocky Mountain revival happening this season.

It’s a tough way for this team to finish, particularly after they had raised the stakes the way they did with their early season performance.

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Benjamin Hochman of the Denver Post provides a little insight into Martin’s situation and what might be in store for the Nuggets down the stretch:

“Fast-paced with the ability to sneak up on you, the calendar might be the Nuggets’ toughest opponent.

There are now 11 days until the final game of the regular season, and forward Kenyon Martin said Thursday he wants to get in a game before the playoffs — if his left knee is up to the task. But Martin just began running on the court, following his March 8 platelet-rich plasma therapy.

Martin admitted “there’s always that possibility” he might not be able to return at all this season.

“I don’t know how it’s going to react to running and jumping and playing 35 minutes a night. It takes a toll,” Martin said. “And I’m not going to be a guy who is going to play 12 to 14 minutes. If I’m going to do that, I might well sit on the side, because that’s not helping the team out. They need my presence on the court, they need me to be who I am.”

Martin, who averages 11.8 points and 9.6 rebounds, began light running on the court Thursday — “that’s definitely progress” — and he has done work in the weight room and on the stationary bike.

“It’s getting better, making progress, doing more and more each day,” he said. “Trying to take steps in the right direction without any setbacks.”

Martin said he doesn’t have a set day to return to the Steadman Hawkins Clinic in Vail, where his doctors would look at the progress from the PRP therapy.”

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More news, notes, quotes and even an opinion or two from around the league:

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PANIC TIME FOR THE LAKERS?

Mark Heisler of the Los Angeles Times:

“What comes after DEFCON 2? These are dire days in Lakerdom, with the team no longer lacking urgency and looking worse than it did before. The Lakers arrived home from their 2-3 trip to find everyone on sky-falling alert … including Lakers officials. Happily, the team didn’t go 0-5, or Southern California might not still have been here to come home to. Owner Jerry Buss made a rare appearance at practice Thursday, although it’s not known if he stopped by after meeting with General Manager Mitch Kupchak; met with Kupchak to assess the crisis; wanted to reassure his players; wanted to threaten his players, or tell Coach Phil Jackson he had to start taking his $3-million pay cut early. Meanwhile, Jeanie Buss pleaded for calm over ESPN 710, asking listeners, “Please, please, don’t panic. This is not the time to panic.” I guess not, with the Lakers still No. 2 in the NBA, No. 1 in the West by 4 1/2 games, and struggling primarily because they don’t have their starting center, Andrew Bynum, who’s expected back soon. Oh, not that soon after all? Now it’s looking more like next weekend … or the weekend after … which is when the playoffs start. “What was said to me, for this type of injury, it could be weeks,” said a typically bemused Jackson at practice Thursday. “When people say, ‘It could be weeks,’ I’m glad they don’t say months…. “Weeks could be anything from two to four … or five. And then if it gets above that, you really get anxious.” This just in: Lakerdom is already anxious.”

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JAZZ USING LAKERS AS MEASURING STICK

Ross Siler of the Salt Lake Tribune: “As far-fetched as it would have sounded after they scored just six points in the fourth quarter of their Dec. 9 loss to the Lakers, the Jazz team that will return to Staples Center tonight could claim a more impressive recent three-month run than the defending champs. Consider that the Jazz have gone 31-9 since the turnaround to their season started Jan. 9, with the Lakers 26-13 during that same period. The Jazz have gone 18-7 since the All-Star break as well, compared to 13-8 for the Lakers. The Lakers completed a 9-6 March with a disappointing 2-3 trip that included losses to Oklahoma City, New Orleans and Atlanta. The Jazz went 12-5 for the month and have won six of seven games in closing within 41/2 games of the Lakers in the standings. That said, the Jazz are trying not to get ahead of themselves as they face the Lakers in what could be a potential Western Conference finals preview. With Dallas losing 97-82 to Orlando on Thursday, the Jazz and Mavericks now sit tied for second place in the Western Conference, with the Jazz owning the tiebreaker after winning the season series. “Maybe we’re playing better than them right now,” said Deron Williams, with the Jazz having played four consecutive lottery-bound teams in Toronto, Indiana, Washington, New York and Golden State, “but this is a tough situation to go into. “They just went 2-3 on a road trip. They’re probably getting all type of stuff from the media. We know they’re going to be ready, they’re going to be hungry for this game.” There’s also the small matter of the Jazz’s 13-game losing streak to the Lakers at Staples Center. They haven’t won in front of the Hollywood set since Jan. 1, 2006, dropping seven regular-season games and six more in the 2008 and 2009 playoffs.”

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EVEN THE BEST HAVE TO WORK ON SOMETHING

Mary Schmitt Boyer of the Plain Dealer: “When the doors to practice opened for reporters Thursday afternoon, the Cavaliers were taking free throws. It was not the first time they’d done so Thursday. Coach Mike Brown admitted he had increased the number of foul shots for his team, which ranks last in the league in free-throw shooting at 72.1 percent (1,432-of-1,987.) “We picked some different times to shoot free throws,” Brown said as the Cavs prepared to play host to the Atlanta Hawks tonight. “We usually just shoot them at the end, but we shot them at the beginning, we shot them a little in the middle and we shot them at the end. We did something a little different at the end of practice today.” The poor free-throw shooting hasn’t cost them a game. Yet. But they certainly didn’t do themselves any favors by making just 29 of 45 free throws (64.4 percent) against the Milwaukee Bucks in Wednesday’s 101-98 victory at The Q. “The game might not have been as close if we’d have knocked those free throws down,” Brown said. Especially down the stretch. The Cavs made just 11 of 17 free throws in the fourth quarter. Of course, that wasn’t their worst showing for a game this season. They made just 20 of 40 in a 100-99 victory over Oklahoma City on Jan. 23. It’s also nothing new. Last season, the team shot 75.7 percent from the line and ranked 21st in the league. The season before, the Cavs shot 71.7 percent and ranked 28th.”

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HAWKS CLAIM THEY ARE READY FOR CAVALIERS

Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “The Hawks still were abuzz from beating the Los Angeles Lakers when they were confronted with the reality of their schedule. Sure, they dominated the Western Conference’s best team Wednesday and vanquished Kobe Bryant, perhaps the NBA’s best player. But Friday they go to Cleveland, which has the best record in the league and the one player who might be better than Bryant, LeBron James. “Enjoy this one tonight, but tomorrow we’ve got to come back and be ready for Cleveland,” Hawks forward Marvin Williams said after the Hawks’ 109-92 victory over the Lakers. “We’ve got the two best teams in the league on back-to-back games. It’s going to take focus [to win both]. “If we play the way we did tonight up there, we will definitely put ourselves in position to win.” The Hawks did nearly everything right Wednesday. They were efficient on offense and determined on defense while winning their ninth consecutive game at Philips Arena. The Cavaliers present an even stronger challenge, starting with their dominance at home and the Hawks’ problems on the road. The Cavaliers are a league-best 33-4 at Quicken Loans Arena. The Hawks have lost three in a row and seven of nine on the road. The Hawks need to win four of their five remaining road games to meet Woodson’s goal of finishing above .500 away from home. The Cavaliers are by far the toughest road opponent remaining among a group that also includes Charlotte, Detroit, Washington and Milwaukee. “They’ve lost at home before, right? So anything can happen,” said Hawks center Zaza Pachulia. “It’s going to be tough, especially on the road. But if we are beating the [NBA] champions, that means you are good enough to do anything. “We need to play with the same kind of intensity we did [Wednesday].” The Hawks were in position to beat the Cavs on their last trip to Cleveland, on Dec. 30. But they blew a 17-point lead in the second half and had a shot-clock error work against them on a key late possession while losing 106-101. The Hawks have lost four in a row at Cleveland, but this time they arrive on a high after beating the Lakers. “We have got to take this confidence we built in this game and go in and be aggressive,” Hawks forward Mo Evans said. “They are very tough home team. If we go in there and have a letdown, we are going to come out with a loss.”

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PLAYOFFS STILL A BATTLE FOR YOUNG BUCKS

Tom Enlund of the Journal Sentinel: “The learning process continues for the playoff-hungry Milwaukee Bucks. Scott Skiles’ team has learned this year that making a run for the postseason is serious business and often not for the faint of heart. More recently, the Bucks have learned that when the opportunity is there to defeat LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers on their home court, you execute, seize the opportunity and close the deal. That, of course, is easier to say than do as the Bucks found out in Wednesday’s down-to-the-wire loss at Quicken Loans Arena. And, of a more immediate concern, the Bucks have learned that pesky Charlotte and Miami just will not go away. The Bucks will play the Bobcats on Friday night in a game that will either allow Milwaukee to distance itself from the Bobcats in the race for the fifth playoff position in the Eastern Conference or allow the Bobcats to pull right up to Andrew Bogut’s bumper. As the Bucks’ attention Thursday turned to Charlotte, inquiring minds wondered if there was anything they could draw from the bitter Cleveland loss that would benefit them as they proceeded down the stretch. “A little bit,” said Bogut. “But you can’t really take too many positives out of a loss in the NBA. It just goes in the loss column. We have an important game coming up that we have to focus on now.” Said Milwaukee’s Kurt Thomas: “You learn from every game. It was a game (in Cleveland) that we definitely could have won. It was right there for the taking. You take the loss and learn from it and you become a much better team. It was a learning experience. We’ll learn from it. Get some rest and get ready to go at it again against Charlotte.” Milwaukee, which still holds the No. 5 position in the East, will take a 41-33 record into Friday’s game. Miami, which has won six straight, is right behind the Bucks with a 41-34 record. The Heat is at Indiana on Friday and then closes out its schedule with road games at Minnesota, New York and Philadelphia; and home games against Philadelphia, Detroit and New Jersey. None of Miami’s remaining opponents is playoff bound. Charlotte, which has won eight of its last nine home games, is right behind Miami with a 39-35 record. Included in that stretch are home victories over the Los Angeles Lakers, Miami and Oklahoma City.”

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SECOND THOUGHTS FOR MILICIC

Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune: “Lost in New York City and all but headed home to Europe only six weeks ago, Darko Milicic now by the day sounds more and more like a man who believes he has found a home in Minnesota. “I like it here,” he said after the Timberwolves practiced Thursday. “There’s nothing they’ve done to not make me stay here, but you never know. If these guys want me to stay, be on the same page for next year, why not stay here?” Of course, there’s the little matters of negotiation and money for a 24-year-old center whose contract and $7.5 million salary expire after this season, which has only seven games left. “You never know, it’s the NBA,” Milicic said. “You never know what will happen in the summertime, how things can go. Next year? Until I sign it, I can’t tell you if I’ll be here or not.” When told Milicic said he wants to remain if the team wants him back, Wolves coach Kurt Rambis said: “It’s pretty easy then, isn’t it? Especially since it’s not my money.” Milicic delivered 15 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots in Wednesday’s 108-99 victory over Sacramento that ended a franchise-record-tying 16-game losing streak. He did so even though he calls himself still not nearly in shape after he spent three months mothballed and disheartened with the Knicks. Milicic called next season “crucial” for his conditioning and his game, wherever he plays. “It’s tough, almost the end of the season, you’re not in shape,” he said. “When I come back, I’ll get in great shape from the beginning, all season long. That’s what I’m looking for, all season long. This season, I’m just trying to finish strong and see what I can do.”

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NOAH, BULS STILL TALKING PLAYOFFS

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune: “Recently, Joakim Noah was doing one of the few things he likes doing as much as playing basketball — talking. Not surprisingly, he was talking about basketball. Specifically, playoff basketball. “Jo was telling me how much that (Celtics) series helped him and how it taught him the commitment level you need and the intensity you have to have,” rookie forward Taj Gibson said. “I want to experience that too.” This is why the debate about whether to make the playoffs or go for a lottery pick is a silly one. Always make the playoffs. Just ask Noah. “Those playoff experiences are incredible,” Noah said. “You can’t take them for granted. To me, they’re the best. That’s all I’m striving for right now.” Of course, the Bulls’ task is a daunting one, even with Luol Deng now possibly returning from his strained right calf as early as Friday night in Washington, with Kirk Hinrich expected back from his sprained left ankle and with Noah possibly starting and playing 30-35 minutes regardless. Coach Vinny Del Negro said Deng would come off the bench and play limited minutes initially whenever he makes his return after missing the previous 11 games. Gibson, who watched that epic Bulls-Celtics series from the USC campus, agreed the Bulls likely need to win out or at least go 7-1 in their final eight games, which includes one game against the eight-seeded Raptors and two against the seventh-seeded Bobcats. Moral victories don’t count in professional sports, but James Johnson playing through a partially torn plantar fascia in his right foot is another example of the Bulls remaining competitive despite widespread injury issues. “We’re not always playing as well as we’d like, but I give the guys credit for sticking together and playing hard,” Del Negro said. “James is in some pain but he’s battling through it. I appreciate it, the staff does and it shows what type of kid he is.”

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