NFL: Nuggets revert to bad, old habits
By ARNIE STAPLETON
AP Sports Writer
DENVER — Carmelo Anthony figured first-round playoff failures were old history after reaching the Western Conference championship a year ago.
Having advanced to seven straight conference championships, Chauncey Billups never dreamed of flopping in the first round, especially against a Utah Jazz team that was missing two starters and the homecourt advantage.
Both were proven emphatically wrong after the Denver Nuggets were eliminated in six games.
Now come the many inevitable questions. Chief among them, yet again: What to do about J.R. Smith?
He spent Friday night sulking over reduced playing time and sitting on the end of the bench while his teammates huddled during timeouts. In the Nuggets' Game 3 loss at Salt Lake City, Smith's halftime warmup shots consisted of a dozen or so bounces — yes, bounces — toward the basket.
Smith, who one year ago had a breakout party in the playoffs, has a year left on his contract.
Coach George Karl is counting on being back in 2010-11. He is recovering from throat cancer treatment that kept him away from his team for the last seven weeks save for a recent 10-minute visit to practice.
"The situation with Coach Karl was difficult to get past," Billups said. "I'm very disappointed, as we came into this season with championship aspirations."
Acting coach Adrian Dantley was a convenient scapegoat for perturbed Nuggets fans, who wondered why he didn't get in the face of his players or the officials as Karl can.
They got fresh fodder in Game 6 when Dantley drew a technical foul for arguing a charge and the Nuggets responded with a 13-0 run to make a game of it. Dantley then mostly sat quietly while his team began to unravel and the Jazz used an 11-0 run in the closing minutes to wrap up the series.
Players said the problems were theirs: inconsistent effort, energy, intensity and focus. They didn't just develop these bad habits over the last month. They were there all season.
With their athleticism and physicality, the Nuggets have thrived for years on what they like to call "random basketball." That is, they don't rely on deliberate set plays but are free to ad-lib, flourishing through dominant 1-on-1 play and breakneck buckets in transition.
That style served them well a year ago in the postseason, but didn't work with the tight officiating in these playoffs. As Billups said, "It's hard to run from the free-throw line." Or when taking the ball out of bounds every time.
The Nuggets, playing without injured center Nene, avoided elimination with a win at Denver on Wednesday night, but went 0-3 at Utah in the series after losing Game 2 at home when they again lost their focus and shooting touch.
"You have to give the Jazz credit. They stole home court and that proved to be the difference," Billups said. "Sometimes when we play against very, very disciplined teams, we tend to break down."
The Nuggets didn't wait until the playoffs to revert to some of their old, bad habits after showing such growth and promise in giving the Los Angeles Lakers all they could handle in the Western Conference championship a year ago.
Despite losing defensive pest Dahntay Jones to Indiana and Linas Kleiza to Greece, the Nuggets began the season looking like a team that could topple the Lakers as the top dog in the West.
Kenyon Martin was playing like a rookie again, rookie Ty Lawson added a speed dimension, and Anthony and Billups were their usual All-Star selves.
There were symptoms of looming trouble, though, and not just in the injuries to Martin, Lawson and Chris "Birdman" Andersen, among others.
Smith, who was slated to move into the starting lineup after last year's playoff push, began the season on suspension and never improved his streaky shooting enough to merit starter's minutes.
Although they could play great basketball against the NBA's upper echelon, their spotty defense and reluctance to always share the ball on offense led to head-scratching losses to lesser teams.
Then came the punch to the gut: Karl's announcement after coaching the West in the All-Star Game that he had throat cancer and would need radiation and chemotherapy treatment.
He was able to stay on the sideline for a while, but the intensive treatments left him with painful mouth sores and sapped his energy. He had complications, too — blood clots in his legs and lungs — and it soon became apparent he wouldn't be returning for the playoffs as he had hoped.
As the Nuggets found themselves in a fight with the Jazz, Billups acknowledged that Karl's absence had affected the team.
"You miss his voice, you miss his leadership, you miss the plays that he draws up in timeouts. You miss the halftime speech," Billups said. "You miss everything."
Although some of the warts were there before, the Nuggets' flaws were exacerbated without Karl, whose genius is in the way he gets this hodgepodge ensemble to function cohesively often enough to give fans hope of finally bringing that golden globe to the Rocky Mountains.
Dantley, who had never been an NBA coach before, didn't have that same touch.
He went 12-12 after Karl was 42-21.
The core of this team returns for what could be a final shot at a championship next year. Anthony and Nene both have player options after 2010-11, Martin's contract expires after next season, as does Smith's and Aaron Afflalo's. And Billups turns 34 in September.
Karl signed a one-year extension during the All-Star break, so he'll be back in October, health permitting.