DALLAS — If someone granted Denver Nuggets coach George Karl three wishes today, here’s No. 1:
“I just wish we would be healthy just to show some people so we could tell them to shut up,” Karl said prior to Friday’s game at Dallas where he eased point guard Ty Lawson back into action off the bench. Lawson, the Nuggets’ super-charged point guard, leading scorer and most imperative player for a deep playoff run, had missed eight of the last nine games with a torn plantar fascia in his right foot.
Lawson provided an encouraging report after scoring 13 points on 5-for-7 shooting in 19 minutes. Unfortunately for the Nuggets, a club that had reeled off — crippling injuries be damned — 20 wins in their last 22 games before Friday’s 108-105 overtime loss to the Mavericks, second-leading scorer and top 3-point threat Danilo Gallinari will only walk through that door on crutches. He tore his ACL eight days ago and won’t be back until next season.
So, yeah, Karl, a top candidate for Coach of the Year, wishes he had his full squad available for the postseason. He badly wants to prove that his blue-and-gold blur of a track team, so good now for three-plus months, doesn’t have to be a regular-season anomaly.
“All year long the league has seen this, the national image of the Nuggets as well, that they’re not a playoff team,” Karl said. “They’re not built for the playoffs; they can’t do this, they can’t do that. Now, I don’t know what percentage we’re down [due to injuries], but a full tank would be better than a three-quarter tank.”
Don’t mistake this as a ready-made excuse if his team gets bounced early with no Gallo and Lawson’s rocket-propelled lower limbs potentially not at full burn when things get rolling for real next weekend.
“The matchup that we get I think we’re going to be excited about.” Karl said, “And I’m confident that we’re going to play well in the playoffs.”
Friday’s loss was costly. Combined with Memphis’ win at Houston, the Nuggets and Grizzlies are tied at 54-25 for the No. 3 seed. The Clippers, also winners on Friday, are just a game back. Denver holds the tiebreaker against both. The The third and fourth seeds will open the playoffs at home with the third seed avoiding Oklahoma City until the conference finals.
Denver, 36-3 on their home floor, doesn’t want to be anywhere else.
If they get the No. 3 seed they’ll face either the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets. Denver is 7-0 against those two foes this season.
And if the Nuggets face Memphis or the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round (or possibly the first)? They’re 5-2 against both.
Oklahoma City in the West finals (or possibly second round)? Try 3-1 with a recent resounding win on the Thunder’s home floor.
“We got a bunch of guys that know how to play together,” said Corey Brewer, a member of the Nuggets’ high-scoring bench that never allows an opponent to catch its breath. “We’re all about one thing and that’s winning, one goal. Every night we come out and figure out a way to win no matter what it is.”
This hyper-explosive, deep and versatile, and super-resilient team might not boast an All-Star, but it tips the scales in entertainment and few squads are as dangerous.
And Karl so badly wants to prove that this style, this team of workers can go deep when so many of his Carmelo Anthony-led teams did not. The knock on this team is they don’t have a go-to scorer in crunch time, that they won’t see the open floor like they do in the regular season and they won’t get in the paint in a seven-game series with the same ease they do in blowing away the league in paint points.
So what about the playoffs when the game slows, defenses adjust and halfcourt offense becomes the supposed law of the land? What then for the Nuggets, a juggernaut Karl said can get the ball in a scoring area in three seconds flat and would do so quicker if humanly possible?
“That’s what everybody says. We’ll find out,” Karl said. “I’m not saying that we can pick the tempo up in the playoffs. OK, so we score 105 points a game (105.8 in the regular season, third in the league). OK, we’re going to score 101 or 102 a game (in the playoffs)? I want to score 110. But if we play certain teams I think we’ll score.
“If a team is going to try to slow us down, check our record. Check our record under 100 points. Check our record. What do you think it is? When we don’t score 100 points or when the other team doesn’t score 100 points, it’s like 29-3. If I’m playing us, I’m going, ‘We want to play a slow-down game when they’re 29-3?’ OK.”
When the Nuggets fail to score 100, which doesn’t happen often, they’re 10-9. But to Karl’s point is his team’s understated ability to lock horns — ranking 11th in field-goal percentage defense — and win lower-scoring games. When the Nuggets hold opponents to under 100 points, they’re not 29-3 as Karl said. They’re 33-3.
“Our team has a mental competitiveness to it, a spirit of competing no matter what the problem or how badly we’re playing or how good we’re playing,” Karl said. “They compete and have a very high level of integrity of doing it the right way.”
Let the playoffs begin.