HOUSTON — There were just a few ticks more than 30 seconds left in the third quarter when the ball and a thunderclap of inspiration came to JaVale McGee on the right elbow.
He took a step toward the basket, ducked under the outstretched arm of the Rockets’ Omer Asik and, well, what the heck, flipped the ball high off the glass, then climbed a ladder in the sky to grab it with one hand and blasted it through the rim.
Ground control to Major Tom.
“When I first got the ball I was thinking dunk,” McGee said. “Then I thought if I didn’t dunk it, I was going to get taken out of the game.”
Too late for those kinds of worries. The Nuggets had already taken the Rockets completely out of the game with a 4-1/2 minute stretch that was out of this world. Wilson Chandler off the bench with steals and jumpers. Ty Lawson with drives to the hoop. Andre Iguodala with all little things that he does.
It was a night for milestones that could have touched off an inter-generational rumble in the Nuggets’ locker room. Coach George Karl, who won the 1,100th game of his career, walked up to the locker stall of Iguodala, who scored his 10,000th career point and cracked: “I’m taking the game ball. You’re on your own.”
No worries. The way things are going, there could be plenty of other occasions to remember if the Nuggets keep up at this rate. The team that lived out of a suitcase through the end of 2012 with 22 of its first 32 games on the road, is now 9-3 since the start of the new year.
It’s more than just home cooking that had turned things around. It’s this delicious combination of all-around athletes that has simmered long enough in Karl’s pot to become a quite tasty dish.
The grueling season-opening forged toughness and togetherness that could pay off for the Nuggets down the road. Karl recently said that he is tired of scrambling down the stretch of the regular season to latch onto one of the final playoff spots in the rugged Western Conference. He has his sights set on battling with the Grizzlies and Warriors for the 4-5 spots. The Nuggets are currently sixth, just 2 1/2 games behind No. 4 Memphis.
“I still think we’re 20 games away from really establishing ourselves as a team that’s got to be reckoned with,” Karl told Benjamin Hochman of the Denver Post.
That should be a shot across the bow of the Western Conference elite Thunder, Clippers and Warriors, who have already been taken down by the Nuggets since Jan. 1.
Here is Iguodala, finally free to just play his all-around game and fit in at both ends of the floor, reaching a significant career plateau and being unaware.
“I wasn’t predicted to be here, so it’s a dream come true to be in the NBA,” he said.
Here is Karl, now the seventh-winningest NBA coach of all time, with the miles and the scars on his resume, just watching the odometer flip over again.
“I’ll probably have a ball signed by the players to put in my trophy case, drink a few beers, some day remembering,” he said.
“I don’t know what to say. I’m at the stage in my career where fortunately I still love the game and still have the privilege to coach a good basketball team. The accolades are because of so many other people more than me. But I put a lot of losses on my belt, so maybe I’ll take some accolades every once in a while too.”
And as long as his team puts in the effort on defense, he’ll even smile at the same time he cringes while looking at the replays of McGee’s showboating dunk.
“It doesn’t fall under the fundamental area of basketball, but it worked and I’m glad it worked,” Karl said. “I hope he doesn’t try it a lot in the future.”
Because from the looks of things, the Nuggets might have too much serious ball to play.