Category Archives: Nuggets/NBA

George Karl on his firing: ‘I think I called it stupid’

George Karl is still more perplexed than angry. A week after Josh Kroenke fired him as Nuggets coach following the best regular season since the team joined the NBA in 1976, he’s still trying to figure out how anybody looks at a 57-win team without any all-stars and decides the coaching staff needs to be blown up.

But a week after the fact Karl was finally ready to talk, so we sat down over breakfast Thursday morning and went through it.

“I think I called it stupid,” he said, recalling his final meeting with Kroenke, the one where he was dismissed after eight and a half seasons. “I think I did say, ‘I want you to know I think this is really stupid.'”

He said he’s had preliminary conversations with the Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers about their coaching vacancies, but nothing substantive to this point. And he admitted he feels a little hypocritical about that because he doesn’t think Lionel Hollins or Vinny Del Negro deserved to lose their jobs, either. Each won 56 games last season.

But Karl suggested that his regular-season success in Denver — the Nuggets have won 62 percent of their games since he took over Jan. 27, 2005 — made it seem easy, and that perhaps a young CEO like Kroenke, who has never been affiliated with a pro team not coached by Karl, sees only the potential upside from here, and not the potential downside.

“I think (former GM) Masai (Ujiri) and Josh both thought it was easy to win,” Karl said. “It is not easy to win.”

But let’s start at the beginning . . .

The lead-up

“I had felt since the trade deadline that Masai and Josh were over here and we were here and it seemed like we were getting further and further apart,” Karl said.

“But I thought it was just my paranoia and just coaching. It seemed like I would piss them off with what I said in the papers or how I handled the game or whatever. But the harmony of our team, I thought, was in a very good place.

“There’s never a true, beautiful love affair between player personnel and management and coaches. There’s always going to be a window of conflict. I could feel that Masai was edgy on some situations, but I didn’t think it was ever a problem.”

What situations?

“Situations, games. Mostly about quotes in the paper and stuff like that. I don’t really want to go into detail. There are mistakes that you make when you talk to the press so many times. You make little mistakes. Sometimes it bothers the management, sometimes it doesn’t. But that was the only thing.

“And then Masai had a meeting with the coaches after the season. It was not an easy meeting, but I thought it was a fair beginning of re-evaluating where we’re going, what we’re going to do, day by day.”

I asked him how much the first-round playoff loss to the Warriors weighed on that meeting.

“It was, I think, a week after the playoffs, maybe 10 days. Everybody expressed their disappointment. The coaches were disappointed, but excited. The team is an exciting team to the coaching staff. We thought we had guys that could have great summers. It’s the first time we could have Wilson Chandler in during the summer because of injuries and circumstances of the lockout and stuff like that. We think we could help him become a better player.

“There were all types of things that were energizing — (Kenneth) Faried and Ty Lawson making the USA team — that suggested to us we could have a great offseason and continue the process into another great year next year. That was the coaches’ feel, I thought. Obviously, upstairs they were thinking something different.”

The contract

Kroenke explained his decision to fire Karl largely in terms of his contractual situation. Two years ago, coming off two seasons dominated by Karl’s neck and throat cancer (2010) and the Carmelo Anthony trade (2011), Kroenke gave Karl a three-year contract with a team option for another three. It was an unusual structure. Options are more often for single years, and easier to pick up, than for multiple years, requiring a commitment similar to that of a brand-new contract.

“It turns out to be a bad option,” Karl said. “It put me and them in a bad position. But the only meeting that I had directly with Josh, I was very, very aggressive, I thought. I think it was on a Sunday (June 2). The first 15 minutes, I was definitive, and I want the fans to know this, that I wanted to coach this team. I had no problem coaching the team on a one-year deal. I was fine with a one-year deal.

“I mean, I want to coach, maximum, four or five more years. I would love it to be in Denver. And I said that to him: ‘I want it to be in Denver.’ But do I think I deserve a three-year extension? No.

“I said, ‘And if you want me to coach next year on a one-year deal, I’ll coach. But there are ramifications to that situation.’

“And I explained that to him — my coaching staff, how I protect my coaches, the passion for the game, the anger of being on a one-year deal will fester up and then it will go back down. You’re on a winning streak, it won’t be a problem. You’re on a losing streak, it’ll be a problem.

“That’s the discussion we had. Maybe I convinced him that it’s not the best way to go; I have no idea. But I want the fans to know that I definitively wanted to coach this basketball team, and if I had to do it on a one-year deal, I would have done it. I was just trying to explain the environment it might bring.”

Karl has made good money during his career and is financially secure. So his concerns about a one-year deal had more to do with his assistants. He has fretted privately over the years about the steady exodus of assistants who left for bigger pay days. He was afraid that an entire staff in the last year of its contracts would be ripe for poaching.

“The negative scenario for me was, like (Oklahoma City coach and former Karl assistant) Scottie Brooks loses an assistant coach. Like, (new Detroit head coach) Mo Cheeks, gone. Say Mo Cheeks takes another guy, and someone comes in here and takes John Welch or Chad Iske from me and offers them a four-year deal for $1.3 million. The thing that worried me on a one-year deal was losing my staff. We’ve been doing that for a long time and it’s frustrating to me. We lose guys every year — Scottie Brooks, Jamahl Mosely, Stacey Augmon. I mean, the list is long.”

So that’s how they left it. According to Karl, he made it clear he would coach the final year of the deal if necessary, but that there were drawbacks to that situation. He felt he had planted the seed of an idea that maybe  killing the three-year option and adding one more year to the year remaining on the deal might be a workable compromise.

“I thought it was a very positive meeting and I was energized by it,” he said. “We had a couple of workouts on Monday and Tuesday. It was fun being in the gym, starting to talk about the draft. And Wednesday night he said, ‘Let’s meet Thursday morning.’ That meeting took 30 minutes and his mode was he wanted a change. It was basically, he wanted to go a different way.

“I thought about fighting, but I didn’t fight very hard. I didn’t want that emotion. I wanted to control myself and I did, I think.”

Did he ever mention explicitly the contract compromise he had envisioned?

“I said, ‘There could be a compromise here.’ Did I say there had to be a compromise? I don’t think I ever said that. He might have envisioned my passion for that as that, but I know I said, ‘I’m ready to coach this team. I want to coach this team.'”

The basketball issues

Much of what Karl has read about the club’s motivation since his firing perplexes him because he doesn’t recall meetings with Kroenke or Ujiri at which the criticisms now coming out were brought up.

“This stuff that I didn’t play the young players. I don’t remember those meetings. First, the quote should be that I didn’t play the young players enough, because I played a lot of young players. I didn’t play JaVale McGee enough. I didn’t play Jordan Hamilton enough. Evan Fournier probably should have played more minutes, but even he got a good rookie year. I think he got a good rookie year and we won 57 games and he’s ready for next year. He’s going to be in a great place.

“Kosta Koufos is a young player and he’s turned into a 25-minute NBA basketball player. Kenneth Faried is in a great place. Could he have played a few more minutes? Probably. But I think the maturity of understanding winning and what it takes to win and seeing why certain things win, seeing how a smart and experienced player is maybe better than a young and talented player, all those things, I think JaVale McGee has gotten better because of it, I think Kenneth Faried understands it better now than he ever has.

“And the next step was ready to be made: ‘OK, Kenneth, you want this responsibility? Remember, you’ve got to take the responsibility that Al Harrington showed. You’ve got to be a leader in the locker room.’ There are little things other than just the games and the stats of the games.

“I don’t remember the meetings where anybody ever told me that if you don’t play this or don’t do this it’s injuring where we want to go. They’re making it out that I was insubordinate. I don’t remember that. Other than my attitude of playing and winning and trying to win, possessed by winning, being aggressive to win.”

I mentioned the criticism of his loyalty to veteran Andre Miller, who won Game 1 of the Warriors playoff series with a last-minute shot but went downhill from there, finishing the series with a .420 shooting percentage.

“I think that’s a fair assessment,” he said. “I think that’s a fair evaluation of the games. But Andre Miller, the year he had, he’s a foundation of the team. I thought he earned that. I thought he had an incredible year. I didn’t expect a year like that out of Andre Miller. And then he’s basically the reason we won Game 1. By Game 6 you’re bailing on a guy who just won Game 1?”

The complication for Karl was that he had mostly played a three-guard rotation of Lawson, Miller and Andre Iguodala, with Corey Brewer moving to the backcourt at times when he wanted more length. But in the playoffs, Brewer disappeared about the same time Miller did, which left Karl with only inexperienced options like Fournier, a 20-year-old rookie, and Hamilton, who had barely played during the regular season.

“Corey wasn’t playing very good,” Karl said. “The next guy was Evan. I’ll admit that in hindsight maybe I should have tried to build his confidence up rather than, as the series went on, pull the plug on him.”

In any case, it was Ujiri who kept pointing out that the Nuggets had the third-youngest roster in the association. Karl assumed that meant the front office saw the same growth curve he saw.

“From the one meeting I had beforehand, I never felt something was about to happen, but my friends in the league had started saying, ‘Hey, George, be careful.’ I probably had half a dozen phone calls from guys in the league saying that.”

The postseason issues

Karl’s career regular-season record is 1,131-756, a winning percentage of .599. The last time he had a losing record in a regular season was 1987-88 with Golden State — 25 years ago.

But his postseason record is 80-105, a winning percentage of .432. This is mostly what his critics point to when they talk about the Nuggets taking the next step — winning in the playoffs.

How does he view his postseason record?

“Disappointment,” he said. “I don’t think I have a big foundation to fight my record. It’s not good. But I think my last five years is better than people think it is.

“Four years ago, we went to the conference finals. Three years ago, I think we would have gone to the conference finals if I didn’t get sick.”

Karl was forced to leave the team down the stretch in 2010 to be treated for neck and throat cancer. Assistant Adrian Dantley coached the team to a first-round playoff loss to Utah.

“Two years ago, we make the Melo trade. I don’t care what you want to say, we did a hell of a job keeping that team together and playing Oklahoma City pretty damn well in that playoff series. We lost one on a referee’s call, and (Kevin) Durant started his greatness in that series by kicking our ass, stealing a game from us. Disappointing? Yes, but if you go back and put that video on today, I think you’ll see a lot of good stuff.

“The next year was the lockout year and the Nene trade, so we’ve made another major change and we now have a team that basically has one guy from the conference finals team — Ty Lawson. All new faces, Nene gone, everybody gone, and we almost beat L.A. Without Wilson Chandler.

“And this year, disappointment. No question, disappointment. Did we think we could win without (Danilo Gallinari)? Yes. We went 7-1 without Gallo down the stretch. Maybe that was an illusion we should have been more worried about.”

So what happened?

“A good young team got the momentum and cockiness in their head. I thought we fought hard from Game 3 on, but both series, including L.A. the year before and this year, and this is on my shoulders, we had trouble getting into the fight, understanding the playoff fight, understanding it is cutthroat, mean, dirty, ugly. We came in with our kind of regular-season attitude. It’s a different world.

“That’s on me, but it’s on the young guys, too, to understand. You’ve got young guys out there trying to figure it out. In the Laker series, when you’ve got (Pau) Gasol, Kobe (Bryant) and (Ron) Artest going against Gallo, Corey Brewer and Ty Lawson, it’s interesting.

“I remember after the series Ty coming up and saying to me, ‘Do you know what Kobe told me in the fourth quarter? He told me, “I’m going to foul you every time down and they’re not going to call it one time.”‘

“That’s the type of intimidation that comes into a playoff series. There is verbal, mental, emotional intensity that you have to live in to learn about. And this year that was probably my disappointment, is Golden State found that magic and I thought we could be the team that found that magic. If we would have found that magic and won that series, scramble around and maybe steal Memphis, and the reality is that’s not that far from happening.”

What’s next

I asked Karl if he has had contact with any of the teams now looking for head coaches.

“I will say I’ve had preliminary conversations with both the Clippers and Memphis,” he replied. “Nothing that’s to say something’s going to happen. I definitely think it’s in the first stage of a process that has however many stages. I have interest in both jobs. I think both teams are very good.

“The one thing I don’t like about it . . . I feel bad. I feel a little slimy, because I don’t think Lionel should have lost his job and I don’t think Vinny should have lost his job. So all of a sudden now I’m being hypocritical because I’m bitching about, ‘This should not have happened, this is wrong, this is the wrong stuff for basketball.’

“It might be the right stuff for Josh Kroenke, but it’s the wrong stuff for the game of basketball. And it’s sick and a little sad that coaches are losing this much respect or appreciation. I don’t think the game is going to be healthy if we continue down this path of blowing up coaches who have done well.

“But I also want to say that the Kroenkes have treated me well. My eight and a half years is a special eight and a half years. I found a home. I’m going to live in Denver. And the fans, for me, I mean, the connection the fans made with me here was deeper than it was even in Seattle. And both ways. The fans who don’t like me are pretty intense. But I mean, I get people who are pretty emotional coming up to me now, almost crying, making me cry.

“In time, it’s going to be eight and a half great years, and eight and a half fun years of coaching. A lot of different personalities on the court, in the front office. The league is going through a tremendous change right now from the standpoint of marketing and internet and media coverage and social networking. It’s eight and a half years of an amazing amount of interchange and information and I think we did it pretty good.

“The stories are tremendous. Coaching staffs, the people who came here and left here and went on to do pretty good. Brooksie in Oklahoma City, Chip Engelland in San Antonio, Jamahl Mosely (in Cleveland), Stacey Augmon out in Vegas. Coach (Tim) Grgurich.

“And I think we’ve got three great assistant coaches now. I think Chad Iske and Melvin Hunt are NBA head coaching candidates. John Welch is such a great basketball guy that if he wanted to be a head coach, I think he could be, but he loves the gym so much I don’t know if that’s what he really wants. But those guys are A+ coaches and I have no idea what the next guy wants to do with those guys. I know I want them on my staff. And then the guys underneath them, Patrick Mutombo, Ryan Bowen and Vance Walberg, are tremendous guys. We have six NBA guys, and that family is very close to me. That family is why I probably fought the ugly battle that probably cost me my job, or they’re accusing me of, because they’re the ones that need security.

“I’m old enough, I got enough money, I’m going to be fine. Security to a 40-year-old guy that has three kids in fifth and sixth and eighth grade, security is a lot more important to him than it is to me, who now has a million dollars in the bank. And they do so much work for me and show so much loyalty to me, I think it’s my right to fight for them. And if Josh thought that was wrong, so be it. I’m going to probably continue to do that in my next job. I’m going to fight for the guys that fight for me.”

His message to fans?

“Thanks for touching my inners. Most fans, it’s always outside. But because of my cancer, because of my identity with the community and the closeness I’ve gotten with some hospitals, I think there’s a soulfulness to what I’ve gone through here that I don’t want to give up, and I probably won’t give up.”


Doug Moe: Nuggets ‘could go right down the tubes’

Keep in mind Doug Moe has seen this before. He was the Denver Nuggets’ coach in 1990, coming off nine straight playoff appearances, when the organization decided to go in a different direction.

Here’s a list of the directions they chose:

Paul Westhead (44-120)

Dan Issel (96-102)

Gene Littles (3-13)

Bernie Bickerstaff (59-68)

Dick Motta (17-52)

Bill Hanzlik (11-71)

Mike D’Antoni (14-36)

Dan Issel (84-106)

Mike Evans (18-38)

Jeff Bzdelik (73-119)

Michael Cooper (4-10)

Fourteen and a half seasons later, they finally resorted to George Karl, who went 423-257. After missing the playoffs for 11 of the 13 seasons after Moe was fired, the Nuggets embarked on a streak of 10 straight postseason appearances, the last nine under Karl.

Considering the polarities of their personalities, Moe and Karl have a lot in common. They’re former players from back in a day when pro basketball was not yet a license to print money. They carry Carolina blue basketball blood. They came to Denver a generation apart and coached some of the fastest, highest-scoring basketball the National Basketball Association ever saw. Following Karl’s dismissal last week, they’re likely to share the franchise record for consecutive playoff appearances for quite some time.

Karl did better in the regular season (.622 to .548), coming within nine wins of Moe’s total in 109 fewer games. Moe did better in the postseason, getting out of the first round four times to Karl’s once.

Neither coached in a championship series while in Denver, and neither has anybody else. The Nuggets have never been there. These two are the royalty of Nuggets coaches through nearly a half-century of existence. Each made the conference finals once; each lost there. (Karl, of course, made it to the NBA Finals in 1996 with the Seattle Sonics and lost in six games to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.)

More than a decade after his last NBA gig, Moe agreed to serve as a bench assistant to Karl shortly after his arrival. He was like a tour guide on a new planet, explaining the elevation thing and how it made Hakeem Olajuwon suck oxygen out of a bottle on the bench. Moe left the travel grind behind — again — as soon as he could without hurting anybody’s feelings.

Karl leaves a young roster where Moe left an old one. The rebuild that was inevitable after Moe’s firing isn’t inevitable now, although it remains to be seen whether the current roster is a fit for the new coach.

So Moe is a Karl guy, and might be expected to defend him. But he’s also an irreverent Brooklynite, condemned to say what he really thinks because he can’t keep from laughing at the other choices.

On the Logan show Monday, for example, when Logan asked Moe, a resident of San Antonio these days, whether Spurs fans think their team can win three in a row over the Miami Heat and capture the Finals without going back to Florida:

“Are you serious?” asked Moe. “You’ve got to be kidding. I mean, it’s like a lock. Miami has no shot. This is San Antonio, this isn’t some other place in the world. That’s a comical question.”

But what does Moe think will happen?

“Oh, I think Miami will probably end up winning, mainly because normally I think the team that wins the third game wins, in a series where one team’s a little better than the other. But San Antonio, having three games at home is, you know, if they win two of them that’s great and then they’ve got to go back and a team as good as Miami, they should be able to hold their home court on two final games. So I think the 2-3-2 really helps out Miami and I think they probably end up winning it.”

Moe has systems, ideas that turn long division into shorthand and make it easy to know what you think. Whether it helps you find the right answer in any particular instance is a different question.

“I always go on the theory . . . like what happened in the previous series,” Moe said. “As soon as Miami beat Indiana in the third game, it was over. As soon as San Antonio, and they were awful in the first two games against Golden State and should have lost both of them, but as soon as they won the third game, it was over. So I go on the third-game winner is the team that will win the series.”

This is Moe’s explanation for what happened to the Nuggets in their first-round series against the Warriors, too. Before we got to that, I asked him what he thought of the decision to fire Karl.

“Well, George is terrific. George did a great job, and I think it was a bad move. I think it will turn out to be a bad move. But in this business you can’t get upset at anything that happens. They want to go in another direction and it’s kind of a whole new face on the organization and stuff, so, those things happen. I feel totally confident George will end up in a pretty good place.”

And the roster?

“The roster’s good. It’s a nice team, a good team. But I think one of the big question marks they’re going to have is who they get in, can he handle the job. They could go right down the tubes. I mean, that’s a possibility.

“It’s not a great team, it’s a good team. They have a lot of depth and that was the strength of their team last year . . . There’s enough good teams in the league, or teams with average talent, you know, you slip, you can drop out of the playoffs.”

Moe does not believe the Nuggets are suited only to the full-court cirque du soleil displays they’ve made famous in the last couple of seasons. But he does give Karl, the sixth-winningest head coach in NBA history, credit for what versatility they displayed.

“I happened to see the Memphis games,” Moe said. “And the Memphis games were all basically half-court games. (The Grizzlies) got ’em slowed down. (The Nuggets) won ’em all. They can play that style. At least, they could last year. George was a good enough coach, he could adapt to things, and I didn’t think they had any problem. In fact, I remember saying to myself when I saw them play there, if it came down to the playoffs, they had to play Memphis, they could beat ’em in any style. That was my thought.”

The Nuggets took three of four from the Grizzlies last season, sweeping the two in Denver and splitting the two in Memphis. Neither team scored 100 points in any of the four.

I asked Moe about the playoff series that seems to have cost Karl his job, the first-round loss to the Warriors.

“Again, I thought the Nuggets had to win the third game out there, and they didn’t. It turned out to be their downfall,” he said.

“To be perfectly honestly, they didn’t step it up enough defensively. They just didn’t make it tough enough on Golden State. Golden State was hot during that period. It was one of those things. They ran into a team that couldn’t miss and they weren’t able to take ’em out of it.

“I saw the same thing down here. I went to the San Antonio-Golden State games. San Antonio totally, 100 percent, lucked out in the first game, got killed in the second game, but they were able to step it up and actually shut down Golden State defensively and that was the difference in that series. And Golden State was the type of team you probably had to put a little more pressure on defensively than Denver did, looking in hindsight.”

As for Karl’s future?

“I think he’ll coach this year,” Moe said. “That’s my opinion, but then again, what do I know? I think he’ll end up with the Clippers, and that’s a totally wild guess. I mean, I haven’t talked to George. I’ve just seen a couple of things said. But that would be my guess, that he ends up with the Clippers.”

As for the playoff follies that got Karl fired — seven first-round eliminations in eight tries (not counting the year he underwent treatment for neck and throat cancer and Adrian Dantley coached them in the playoffs) — Moe offered the calm reason of a 75-year-old retiree:

“You’ve got to remember, Denver was playing against L.A. and San Antonio most of the time in the playoffs, which makes it a little bit more difficult to get out.”


Is Josh Kroenke the Nuggets’ Jim Buss?

Some of the obstacles awaiting 33-year-old Josh Kroenke as he steps out from behind the curtain are not of his own making. Being a 30-something named Josh, for example. That rustling sound you hear is Broncos fans thrashing involuntarily in their seats.

As chief executive of the Nuggets and scion of an empire builder forced to hand over the reins, at least officially, by NFL cross-ownership rules, the younger Kroenke has done something unprecedented in NBA history: He has lost the league’s executive of the year and coach of the year the same year.

In fact, the same month. Nearly the same week. Masai Ujiri and George Karl won their awards on consecutive days in early May and both were gone by early June. Karl had talked about the coach-of-the-year award being a jinx, but this is a bit fast, even by the standards of that checkered award’s dubious history.

Nuggets fans don’t have Karl to kick around anymore. They don’t have Ujiri to credit for making chicken salad out of . . . well . . . the 20th and 22nd picks in the NBA draft, which isn’t as easy to do as it sounds.

The team is now all about the young Kroenke. He is not pretending to be a hands-off owner who will select a new general manager, hand over the basketball operation and wish him luck. In fact, he left open the possibility he’ll select a new coach first, which would make it clear he’s the chief basketball operations executive.

As Kroenke patiently explained it last week, he has been the Nuggets’ chief basketball operations officer since hiring Ujiri as executive vice president of basketball operations nearly three years ago. When I asked about the shadow of his famous father, Silent Stanley, and speculation that Karl was the latest victim of the elder Kroenke’s hardball negotiating style, the younger Kroenke insisted he was on his own.

“There wasn’t any involvement with my dad other than he said to do what I think is best,” Josh Kroenke said.

With Ujiri and Karl gone, I asked if he was ready to be held personally accountable for wherever the Nuggets go from here.

“Yeah, I mean, I was prepared for it in 2010 and I’ve been prepared this whole time,” he said. “It’s never fun jumping into a volatile situation such as, you know, people could view that with the uncertainty around here with the two main positions as volatile, but I’m fully confident in myself, in my own abilities.”

I mentioned Jim Buss, the second-generation owner in Los Angeles who, by all accounts, made the decision to hire Mike D’Antoni as Lakers coach rather than Phil Jackson despite having a well-respected general manager in Mitch Kupchak.

“I can’t speak for Jim Buss,” Kroenke said. “The Lakers organization is one that’s bounced us from the playoffs several years and I have first-hand experience at that, so I’m never going to say a negative thing about the Lakers because I’ve got to beat ’em before I can say anything.

“As far as myself, I’ve prepared for these moments most of my life, whether it was riding around in the car as a teenager with my dad, listening to him on the phone, talking to other business associates about professional sports, interning with the NBA league office right after college, playing basketball in college. I was a sponge while I was at the University of Missouri regarding the game of basketball and different strategies that are implemented. So I don’t think I’m a typical person in this position.

“But it’s going to be a big challenge going forward and I think that there is, judging from the reaction that I’ve gotten around the league and some of the people that have reached out to me about the positions that are available, there’s a lot of people that would want to come work with me in Denver.”

So let’s look at the two big decisions that stripped the Nuggets of their award-winners and swept back the curtain to reveal the young Kroenke as the man pulling the levers.

Masai

To hear Kroenke tell it, there really was no decision with respect to Ujiri. They had a handshake agreement on a new contract — reportedly at about $1.2 million per season, more than doubling Ujiri’s rookie GM deal — but also an understanding that Kroenke would let him out of it if something truly extraordinary came along. In various retellings, this option included only the Raptors, for whom Ujiri previously worked, or was more general in nature.

Tim Leiweke, the former Nuggets president and longtime AEG executive in Los Angeles, is the new poobah at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, charged with making its marquee franchises — the Maple Leafs and Raptors — relevant again. He made Ujiri an offer he couldn’t refuse — reportedly $3 million a year for five years. Kroenke mentioned the handshake deal, then shrugged, congratulated his friend and wished him well.

The obvious question was why not fight for him? Why not match the offer? It’s not as if the Kroenkes lack the money. Josh’s parents are both among the nation’s 100 wealthiest individuals, according to Forbes, with a combined net worth of $8.5 billion.

Why should the Raptors, of all teams, be able to afford a GM’s salary the Nuggets could or would not? When I posed this question to Kroenke at his press conference last week, he off-loaded the decision to Ujiri.

“Masai told me not to,” Kroenke said. “He said, ‘Josh I’m not going to tell you to match. I think I have already made my decision.’ His press conference was very revealing because it showed his love for the city of Toronto. In his opening statement he said ‘I am home’ several times and that is a great thing for Masai to feel. I don’t think it was his intention to move on from Denver this quickly, but Toronto was always a special place for him, as well as Denver is.”

I totally get why both Kroenke and Ujiri chose to frame the move this way. It takes them both off the hook — Ujiri for disloyalty, Kroenke for cheapness. But I don’t believe this sentimental story about going “home” for a minute. Toronto was one of many global stops for Ujiri, a native Nigerian, and not a particularly long one.

Of course he called Toronto home at a press conference in Toronto. If he’d signed a new deal in Denver, 10-to-1 he would have called Denver “home” at that press conference. In fact, he may have said he was coming home when he returned to Denver from Toronto in 2010; I don’t remember. This is how mercenaries bond with local communities, by claiming a loyalty that doesn’t actually exist. After two stints with the Nuggets, he’d lived in Denver longer than in Toronto.

Ujiri is not looking for a sentimental landing spot. He cares much more about succeeding at his trade, about becoming the architect of an NBA champion, than about his mailing address. He’s 43 years old. Do you think Toronto is his final stop? Me neither.

No, the appeal of Toronto was all about the money, and not just the salary, although Ujiri, who goes from being the lowest-paid GM in the NBA to one of the highest-paid, did not deny its importance.

“Financially, I think it was big,” he said.

But there is also the general looseness of the purse strings under Leiweke, who needs to make an immediate impact on a sad sack NBA franchise — the facelift includes new uniforms and possibly a new name — and has been given the resources to do it. It’s not just Ujiri’s salary that would have been smaller in Denver. His budget would have been, too.

This is the thing about Kroenke Sports Enterprises that sometimes perplexes fans. On the one hand, it represents deep-pocketed ownership by a certified billionaire for a franchise that operated on a shoe string for much of its history. That means stability: It’s not moving. It’s not getting sold. The owner isn’t getting his possessions thrown out on the sidewalk, not to get Nuggets fans thrashing involuntarily to flashbacks of their own.

On the other hand, you’re not getting what a hard-nosed businessperson would consider irresponsible spending. You’re not getting the exuberance of Mark Cuban or the late Jerry Buss. You’re getting competitive rates for players and coaches and bargain rates for pretty much everything else. You’re getting a mandate to operate in the black, meaning the size of Silent Stanley’s bank account is seldom relevant. Ujiri will have more scouts in Toronto, more freedom to ask for other things that may come up and more financial support for his basketball development campaign in Africa.

Now, KSE may be right in this case. It may be right that Ujiri at $1.2 million is a sound investment and Ujiri at $3 million is dramatically overpaying the latest hot executive. We won’t know until we see where the franchise goes from here. If the Nuggets continue to draft well and trade well and win a lot, the decision to let Ujiri go will be vindicated.

Under the Kroenkes, the Nuggets have adopted a “team” approach to the front office, which is probably why the younger Kroenke believes he can replace Ujiri and go on as before.

But this “team” approach can have unintended consequences, too. Before Kroenke hired Ujiri, the team was a triumverate of Mark Warkentien, Rex Chapman and Bret Bearup, who didn’t particularly like each other and produced palace intrigue that made the Kremlin envious.

A word of caution: Finding good NBA players in the middle or bottom of the draft’s first round is not as easy as it’s looked lately with Ty Lawson (drafted by the previous regime), Kenneth Faried and Evan Fournier. Once upon a time, near the end of the Doug Moe era, the Nuggets’ inability to jump from good to great was blamed largely on the mediocre players they kept drafting because of poor draft position.

The notion that Kroenke can step in for Ujiri is worrisome. Ujiri has been scouting basketball players on a global basis for most of his adult life. Kroenke has been preparing for a role as a sports owner and executive most of his. These are different paths.

John Elway has demonstrated that someone not steeped in scouting and film work can make good personnel decisions if he has good people around him. Over the past three years, Kroenke may have done essentially the same from behind the curtain. But Ujiri was a big part of those calls. Who will have Kroenke’s ear next? One hesitates to mention the Jerry Jones model — the owner who was a college player and thinks he knows more than he does.

However it turns out, I would suggest you take the prodigal-son-returns-home story with a shaker full of salt. Ujiri went back to Toronto because of the money — not only for him, but for his operation.

George

Try as he might to be accountable — and the younger Kroenke spent more time talking to reporters last Friday than his father has in 20 years — he could not address the real question hanging over his firing of Karl:

What, specifically, did he object to about a coach who just led the Nuggets to the best regular season in their NBA history, 57 wins without a single all-star on the roster, who was 423-257 — a .618 winning percentage — over eight seasons and part of a ninth?

Was it that his teams were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in eight of their nine consecutive appearances? That’s a valid reason, but a risky one. The last time the Nuggets decided nine consecutive playoff appearances weren’t good enough, they fired Doug Moe and missed the playoffs 11 of the next 13 seasons.

Kroenke didn’t want to say anything that might be construed as negative with Karl now looking for work, so he denied that the first-round playoff loss to the Warriors had anything to do with his decision. I’m going to operate on the assumption he said this out of courtesy to Karl and that it is not true.

The irony is everybody in the organization pretty much agrees now that it was the magic act of wringing 57 wins and a No. 3 seed out of a young, interesting but obviously incomplete roster that created the expectations that led to Karl’s firing.

“The 57 wins that we had, was it a little bit much for this young team?” Ujiri asked on his way out the door.

“Those guys played hard. They’re talented. I think George did a great job. And so, did we get ahead of ourselves? When you sit back and think about it, the third youngest team in the NBA. They still have to grow, they still have to get better. I don’t think out of the core group of maybe eight, nine, 10 players, I don’t know if there’s one person that you’d say is not going to get better. They’re all going to be better players.”

As Kroenke explained it, Karl’s contract status was the heart of the problem.

“There were a couple different factors, but the main one that was coming up consistently was there was a contractual issue with George,” he said.

“George is entering the final year of his contract. We have a three-year option after next year and after several discussions with George it was a tough situation because I don’t think he was comfortable going in on the last year of his contract and I was in a tough position because I couldn’t extend him at this point in time.

“So, with the status quo being like that, I just decided it was best for us both to get a fresh start. I have an immense amount of respect for George as a coach and as a human being, and for us to get a fresh start now and allowing him, if he chooses to continue his coaching career elsewhere, I thought it was best for all parties involved.”

Why couldn’t he extend him at this point in time?

“You know, we’ve gone under a huge, I don’t want to say rebuild, I just say retool, kind of on the fly here over the last several years, and we have a completely different roster than we did when we made the Western Conference finals a few years ago,” Kroenke said.

“I think as teams evolve, their personality evolves as well, and with a lot of younger players on our team now and those guys are going to be under contract for the foreseeable future, I couldn’t make an accurate decision on if George was the right guy for the long term and so at that point in time I needed to make a decision for the short term.”

Odd, because this latest iteration of the Nuggets seemed clearly the one Karl liked best. No superstar to placate, no compromises to get certain people enough touches or compensate for certain no-shows at the defensive end. It is hard to dispute that Karl got the very most out of this roster during the regular season — hence his award.

But it is also hard to dispute that the Nuggets were not the same team in the playoffs. They shot .478 in the regular season, .438 in the playoffs. They shot .343 from long distance in the regular season, .311 in the playoffs. They gave up 101.1 points per game in the regular season, 107.2 in the playoffs.

The Warriors did not do what most of Denver’s first-round opponents have done — slow down the pace and make it a half-court game. The Warriors ran and shot, and boy, did they shoot. Karl’s defenders will point out that the Warriors were a buzz saw to begin the postseason, then slowly cooled off. They shot .576 from the floor in their first three wins over the Nuggets.

There was grumbling in the front office that Karl was outmaneuvered by Golden State’s second-year coach, Mark Jackson. Going into the series, Karl seemed eager to play small against a Warriors team anchored up front by the limited mobility of Andrew Bogut and David Lee. Even without the injured Danilo Gallinari, Karl thought he could play a small forward — in this case, Wilson Chandler — for long stretches at power forward. Chandler rebounds well enough to play the part and would have a big offensive advantage against the slower Lee.

When Lee went down with a torn hip flexor in the first game, everything changed. It was Jackson who went small, announcing he would start Carl Landry in Lee’s place but actually starting a third guard, Jarrett Jack. Small forward Harrison Barnes moved up to power forward and Chandler lost his matchup advantage. With power forward Kenneth Faried hobbled and center Kosta Koufos ineffective, Karl felt he had little choice but to go small, a matchup that didn’t work against the Warriors’ suddenly small lineup.

I’m told Ujiri and Kroenke were frustrated by Karl’s reluctance to start center JaVale McGee, whom the executives awarded a four-year, $44 million contract just last summer. Belatedly, Karl went big in Game 5, starting McGee for the first time, and the Nuggets got a win, although McGee was a minor factor. That was the Andre Iguodala game. McGee started again in Game 6 and the Warriors closed out the series.

For their part, Karl and his staff cringed at McGee’s defensive lapses. One trip, he was swatting away an opposing shot and drawing ooohs from the crowd. The next, he was nowhere to be found. Starting him next to Faried, another unpredictable defender, made the defensive game plan seem optional, which was not the message Karl was trying to deliver to his young team.

The front office was also frustrated by Karl’s loyalty to veteran Andre Miller, who had a great Game 1, winning it on a final shot, but went steadily downhill from there. The front office would have liked to see more of Fournier, a 20-year-old rookie who shot .353 in the series.

For all the quibbling, the main issue was whether to commit for multiple years to a coach who couldn’t seem to figure out the postseason. If this sounds familiar, it is pretty much the same criticism aimed at Moe a generation earlier. Both coaches took advantage of Denver’s elevation to produce a decade of regular-season winning by running other teams out of the gym. The Nuggets had the best home record in the association this season at 38-3.

When the playoffs come around, everything changes. Opponents are no longer coming to town after playing the previous night, getting to their hotels at 4 a.m. They are no longer forced to adjust on the fly to Denver’s unconventional offense. They acclimate to the elevation and they game plan to stop a team that lacks anyone who has to be double-teamed consistently.

Is this Karl’s fault? It is not. But it’s a conundrum the Nuggets have to face at some point. If Brian Shaw and Lionel Hollins are at the top of Kroenke’s coaching wish list, as has been reported, the Nuggets will at least entertain playing a slower style that might produce less regular-season success but have more of a chance to succeed in the postseason. That’s a risky tradeoff because seeding still plays the biggest role in determining whether a team advances in the playoffs. Not to mention the fact that the Nuggets roster, as currently constituted, lacks both the outside shooting and inside power game a half-court team needs.

“I wouldn’t have made the decision that I made if I thought that we were going to take a gigantic step back in the near term,” Kroenke said. “Do I expect us to win 57 games next year? We’re going to have our work cut out for us. One, we have some injuries, and two, we’re going to have to be working through a new system, a new coach, and everybody’s going to have to be getting comfortable with each other.”

Well, yeah, that’s what happens when you fire a coach who just won 57 games. For better or worse, it’s all on Josh now.


Mark Jackson’s fine whine

Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he was playing to the three guys who will suit up as referees for Game 6 in Oakland on Thursday night. Otherwise, Mark Jackson’s whine about the dirty, dastardly Nuggets following the Warriors’ 107-100 loss in Game 5 sounded like the indignation of a schoolyard bully who finally got his.

For their part, the Nuggets should take it as a compliment. It’s the first time in history they’ve been mistaken for the Bad Boys.

“They were the more physical team,” Jackson said. “They were the aggressor. They hurt us in the first half scoring the basketball, points in the paint. Made us pay for our turnovers. They tried to send hit men on Steph. But give them credit. It wasn’t cocky basketball. They outplayed us. It wasn’t magic. They outplayed us.”

Uh, hold on, you sort of buried the lead there, Mark. Hit men?

“You know, some dirty plays early,” he said. “It’s playoff basketball. That’s all right. We own it. But make no mistake about it: We went up 3-1 playing hard, physical, clean basketball, not trying to hurt anybody.”

Self-righteousness has always been a Jackson trait , but this was a dizzying passive-aggressive two-step in which every allegation of malfeasance was accompanied by an assurance that it was fine; to be expected, in fact, in playoff basketball. Thus his assessment of Kenneth Faried’s performance:

“He set some great screens, and some great illegal ones, too. He did his job. Hey, I played with guys like that. You’re paid to do that. Dale Davis, Anthony Davis, Charles Oakley. You’re paid to do it. So give ’em credit. But, as an opposing coach, I see it, and I’m trying to protect my guys.”

It is not clear, exactly, how whining in public about one of the softer teams in the NBA protects his guys, unless it’s an attempt to influence the next officiating crew, in which case it might be delivered more effectively the day before Game 6 so it’s all over the media during the 24 hours those referees are in town preparing to do the game.

Jackson takes many things personally and this was one of them. That line about how the Nuggets’ win wasn’t magic? That had been simmering 48 hours. Nuggets coach George Karl used the word after Game 4 to describe the Warriors’ incredible shooting — .530 through the first four games, .576 in their three wins.

“The next 48 hours is going to be difficult, to say the least,” Karl said then. “They’ve found some magic and we got to somehow take it away from them.”

Apparently, this qualifies as disrespect these days. I don’t know who described the Warriors as “cocky,” but Jackson got back at him, too.

The Nuggets were by turns perplexed and amused.

“They play dirty every night,” said Faried, who was shoved to the floor beyond the baseline by Warriors center Andrew Bogut in perhaps the most replayed scene of the series so far. “And they target me. Every rebound, they try to hit me and try to hurt me. It’s basketball.”

Faried, like Steph Curry, the Warriors guard Jackson said was targeted by hit men, is recovering from a sprained ankle.

“I think I’ve taken the hardest hit throughout the series,” said Andre Iguodala, the star of the Nuggets’ Game 5 victory. “I think it was Game 1 or 2. Bogut leaned into me. Fullcourt screen. And I didn’t remember what happened the rest of the game. So I think they kind of brought the physicality to the series and we’ve just stopped being the receivers and we’re starting to hit back a little bit.”

The only specific play Jackson cited was a glancing collision between Faried and Curry at the free throw line that sent Curry sprawling. From my vantage point, I couldn’t tell if Faried tripped him or gave him a little hip or knee check on the way by. Either way, it was a message that Curry no longer had a letter of transit through Denver’s defense.

This is pretty mild stuff by NBA playoff standards, as Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith confirmed in their conversation on TNT later that night. They agreed nothing particularly heinous had occurred in the Nuggets-Warriors game and that Jackson’s remarks were ill-advised. Then they showed video of truly dirty playoff fouls.

Jackson’s fusillade did manage to divert the Game 5 storyline from the fact that his marvelous shooters did, for one night anyway, lose their magic touch. The Warriors shot a rather mortal .432 and Curry, the star of the series so far, made just one of seven three-point attempts.

Superficially, at least, the difference was that Karl went back to a standard NBA lineup. He had abandoned it first when Faried sprained his ankle just before the end of the regular season and then because center Kosta Koufos was such a stiff in the first two games of the series, especially the second, when the Warriors became just the fourth visitor all season to win on Denver’s home floor.

After Jackson lost power forward David Lee to a torn hip flexor in Game 1, he moved small forward Harrison Barnes to power forward and added guard Jarrett Jack, making it a three-guard lineup. In Games 3 and 4, Karl followed suit, keeping small forward Wilson Chandler at power forward, a position he’d assumed during Faried’s absence. Faried moved from power forward to center and Koufos moved to the bench. With Faried still hampered by the ankle, this lineup was so small that it was obliterated on the boards, usually a Nuggets strength.

Jackson got a lot of credit for this tactical move, which was shrouded in a strangely transparent ruse. In each of the Warriors’ wins, he offered for pre-game introductions a lineup in which a traditional power forward, Carl Landry, was in Lee’s place. Then, when it was time to actually start the game, he deployed the one with Jack in Lee’s place and Landry on the bench. If Karl took offense as easily as Jackson does, he might have viewed this odd gamesmanship as an attempt to deceive him.

In any case, Karl went back to a standard lineup for Game 5, but substituted JaVale McGee, his erratic but athletically sensational backup center, for Koufos. The Nuggets led 36-22 after one and 66-46 at intermission.

When I asked Jackson about this tactical move, he declared it irrelevant.

“We lost the game because they scored in the paint, we turned the basketball over, they got it going in transition and we made mistakes,” he said. “No matter who’s on the floor, when we play our brand of basketball, we’ll be just fine. We put together a run with small guys on the floor, so it has nothing to do with size. We have to stay true to who we are.”

When Jackson went small in the second half, Karl matched up and the Nuggets’ big lead — 22 at its height — melted away. The Warriors got within five three times in the final minutes. I asked Karl why he thought that happened.

“We can go to switching more of their pick-and-rolls and play smaller or we can go bigger and try to rotate,” he said. “That’s a game-time decision for us most of the time. I think we actually slowed down more in the second half. We only scored 41 points in the second half. We somehow got to get enough energy on the court to keep the tempo and pace fast.”

As if anticipating Jackson’s allegations, which came minutes later, Karl closed his interview session with a joke, an unprompted rhetorical question:

“Did Draymond Green play football or basketball at Michigan State?”

Green is the Warriors’ 6-foot-7, 230-pound, rookie defensive specialist. He managed four personal fouls in 14 minutes of action.

The Nuggets desperately needed a big game from somebody other than Ty Lawson and they got it from Iguodala, who put up 25 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists. The last Nugget to post 25 and 12 in a playoff game was LaPhonso Ellis. Throw in the assists and you have to go back to Fat Lever.

“Honestly, I didn’t really change anything from the last two or three games,” Iguodala said. “I felt like Game 2, the shot felt really well. Same with the two games in Oakland. I feel really good in that arena. So I didn’t change too much. I just tried to be a little more assertive once I got the ball because either I’m going to make a play for someone else or I can make a play for myself. So the guys relied on me to do that tonight.”

In fact, Iguodala has been shooting well in the series — he was at .512 from the field and .400 from long distance going into Game 5; those numbers are .534 and .429 now — but not to nearly as much effect. He was averaging 14.8 points a game before his 25-point explosion.

The Nuggets also got a big first half from Chandler, who struggled through the first four games, shooting .356. Chandler’s splits alone may account for the big first half lead and the disappearing second half lead. He had 16 before halftime, three after.

Still, the big story heading into Game 6 will be the allegations of dirty play, even if Jackson’s coach on the floor, Jack, didn’t seem to share the perception.

“It was good defense and we welcome good defense,” he said of the Nuggets. “It felt like good defense. We liked it. There is nothing further to it. We’re a close-knit bunch, a battle-tested bunch; nothing can get us out of our character. I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”

Iguodala knew, and he was pretty sure it went both ways.

“Are the Warriors taking cheap shots?” he asked, repeating a question. “I think it’s just part of the big game of basketball. I’ve been hit a few times and I’ve wondered who it was or how they caught me. I had to go back on tape because I’ve been hit with some shots and it wasn’t a ghost hitting me.”


Bushwhacked! Do the Nuggets have an answer for the greatest-shooting backcourt ever?

In Mark Jackson’s brain, there was a certain intrigue to the starting lineups for Game 2 of the Nuggets-Warriors playoff series Tuesday night.

Kenneth Faried, the Nuggets’ power forward who missed Game 1 with a sprained ankle, was cleared to return, but his coach, George Karl, told reporters he would bring him off the bench rather than return him immediately to the starting lineup.

Karl tends to be more transparent about such things than some coaches because he figures his opponent will know soon enough anyway. If he says he’s not starting Faried and then he does, it would be a simple matter for Jackson to alter his own lineup in response, or to substitute early if he felt the matchups were going against him.

But Jackson, in his first playoff series as a head coach, thought Karl, an old hand, might be trying to snooker him. Knowing the visiting team’s lineup would be introduced first, he sent out a group that included Carl Landry at power forward, replacing the injured David Lee. Landry would be a suitable matchup for Faried.

When the Nuggets did what Karl said he would do, starting Wilson Chandler in Faried’s big forward spot, Jackson called Landry back and replaced him with guard Jarrett Jack, giving the Warriors a smaller, three-guard lineup.

Why didn’t Landry actually take the floor after being introduced with the starters?

“I’m not really sure,” Jackson said. “He may have had to go to the bathroom or something.”

So Jackson didn’t change his mind between introductions and tipoff?

“No,” he said. “Just covering all the bases.”

In other words, if Faried was in the Nuggets’ lineup, Jackson had Landry ready to match up. If he wasn’t, Jackson would make a last-minute switch. The decision had actually been made earlier in the day.

“I came to my coaches early this morning,” Jackson recounted. “I said, ‘Am I crazy to start Harrison (Barnes) at the four (big forward)? I mean, somebody talk me out of it.’ They all just smiled and they co-signed it. And I knew it was the right thing.”

If Karl or any member of his staff was surprised by the last-minute change, it didn’t show. The effect of Jackson’s decision was to go small against a small Nuggets lineup that also featured three guards — Ty Lawson, Evan Fournier and Andre Iguodala. The Nuggets held their own early, winning the first quarter 28-26. It was their only competitive episode of the evening.

“Did it throw us off?” Karl asked, repeating the question. “I mean, we play small as much as any team. The first quarter, we actually had somewhat control of what was going on. So we kind of knew what was going on.”

Whatever happened after that, it should have been accompanied by alcoholic beverages of some kind. The Nuggets saved their biggest stinker of the six-month season — a 131-117 blowout that was even worse than it sounds — for the first round of the playoffs. It’s like an allergy or something.

The game takes its place in the Nuggets’ book of dubious records. It was not only the most points scored against the Nuggets this season, it was the most scored against them in a playoff game in 23 years. It was the most scored against anybody in a playoff game in 18 years.

The Warriors’ 14 three-pointers were a new record for a Denver playoff opponent. The Nuggets collected a total of 26 rebounds, their most meager postseason total ever. Faried, the rebounding Manimal, had two in 21 minutes.

You get the idea. The Warriors made nearly two of every three shots, an astounding shooting percentage of .646. It’s been 22 years since anybody had a bigger number in the playoffs.

When I asked Karl if it was his team’s worst defensive performance of the season, he didn’t argue.

“I would think so,” he said glumly. “I can’t recall another one. We didn’t do very much of anything very well. Pick and rolls, give up the paint, three ball, transition.

“We let their shooters get into the game, and the frustration of covering shooters making shots broke down our team concepts some. Our shot selection offensively broke down and that gave them the fast break a lot of times. I don’t think I’ve ever coached a game where a team got three 35-point quarters, maybe in my career. I don’t remember that.”

After that first quarter, the Warriors’ shots rained down from everywhere and everyone. Jack hit 10 of 15, Barnes nine of 14, Klay Thompson eight of 11 and Steph Curry 13 of 23. Success energized the Warriors. Failure drained the Nuggets. The Warriors moved the ball until the Nuggets quit chasing it, then made the open shots.

Iguodala had the hot hand for the Nuggets early, hitting five of six first-quarter shots, including two three-pointers, and doing his part to fire up the full house as he ran back up the court. He got only five more attempts the rest of the game, and he didn’t seem that happy about it.

“We have so many guys who are attacking,” he said. “We’ve got to stick with some things that if they’re working, we’ve got to continue to go with it. But they went zone in the second half and kind of threw us out of our rhythm a little bit. And it kind of takes away from one guy being able to attack.”

Chandler, in particular, suffered in Golden State’s switch at big forward to Barnes from the injured Lee.

“We matched up better on defense,” Curry said. “Wilson had a huge game last game. D. Lee did a great job guarding him, but when you have Harrison able to defend him, that’s a better matchup for us.”

Chandler took one more shot than Barnes and scored 10 fewer points. Matched up against another natural small forward, he lost the quickness advantage he has against bigger, slower power forwards.

“Harrison Barnes, for a rookie, hasn’t been getting the respect that he deserves,” Jackson said. “A rookie that starts for a No. 6 seed all year long, defends, doesn’t kill you with numbers but does everything the right way.”

Barnes said Jackson didn’t tell him he was going to play big forward until he was about to walk out on the court for the opening tip.

“I think Carl even came out in the starting lineup when they announced it,” Curry said. “So I think Jack knew right before the game started that that was what we were going to do. He was ready for it. We had that lineup a lot during games, but just a different look to start with it. But defensively I think it helped us to start the game that way.”

Having removed the Nuggets’ matchup advantage, the Warriors proved better, for one night anyway, at pretty much every position. Curry put up a dazzling line of 30 points, 13 assists, five rebounds, three steals and one turnover. Thompson scored 21 points on only 11 shots. He took six threes and made five.

“We’ve got guys that can knock down shots,” Jackson said. “When you talk about Klay Thompson and Steph Curry, in my opinion they’re the greatest shooting backcourt in the history of the game. And I’m a guy that’s just not throwing that out there. I followed basketball my entire life. Not only played, covered it, but I was a fan as a kid. I watched the great players. And these two guys are absolutely off the charts. I would have put Reggie Miller and myself in there, but I held him down.”

So the Nuggets got smoked. What do they do now? Games 3 and 4 are in Oakland this weekend. New schemes? New lineups? Try harder?

“We’re going to have to play harder,” Karl said. “There’s no question that to win in Golden State is going to take much more energy than we’ve put into these two games. I’m not saying we didn’t try hard. We played hard. But we didn’t play hard enough. They played harder than we did.

“They made shots, they get cocky, they get enthusiastic, they get into it. They were urgent and desperate. I can’t say that we didn’t play hard, we just didn’t play playoff hard. A little bit, I think they were more physical than we were. Their big guys hit us more than we probably banged them. The momentum and pendulum of urgency and desperation comes on our side in Golden State when we get there.”

Speaking of big guys, if anybody has seen center Kosta Koufos, please alert local authorities. Somehow, the Warriors managed to outscore the Nuggets by 18 points in the 14 minutes he spent on the floor. Might this be an opportune time to start JaVale McGee? Or does Faried, who was ineffective off the bench, return to the starting lineup?

“I’ll evaluate everything,” Karl said. “We will evaluate everything. And we will try to make the adjustments that put the best team out there for more minutes than we did tonight, and that won’t be that difficult.”

Each playoff game is its own story, and one doesn’t necessarily influence the next. But the Warriors were the more aggressive, skilled team in the first two games of the series. Only Andre Miller’s miraculous 18-point fourth quarter in Game 1 prevented the visitors from winning both.

“This series is far from over,” Jackson said. “We’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for them and they’re more than capable of coming into Oracle (Arena) and beating us. So we’ve got to relax, and then we’ve got to get back to work.”

The Warriors are much better outside shooters, so the Nuggets have to do what they did all season, which is get to the rim. But they aren’t rebounding, the catalyst for the fast break, and the Warriors are frustrating penetration by turning to a zone defense at times that turns the Nuggets into jump shooters or turnover machines.

Curry has been better than Lawson. Thompson has been more efficient than Iguodala. Barnes outplayed Chandler in Game 2. And Koufos vs. Andrew Bogut has been no contest.

“This process has just begun,” Karl said. “We’ve beaten this team four out of six games. Someone’s always said the series doesn’t begin until someone wins on the other team’s court. Now the series in a lot of ways, the process has begun.”

Well, if we’re in a battle of cliches, the pressure is on the Nuggets now. They do not look like the team that finished the regular season on a 24-4 roll. Their 24-game home winning streak is over. Now we find out if they know how to counterpunch.


So Andre Miller is ready for the playoffs; anybody else?

For most of the last two months of the NBA regular season, the Denver Nuggets seemed impermeable to bad news.

Leading scorer Ty Lawson goes down? Andre Miller takes over at the point. Miller is lost to one of the best bench units in the association? Twenty-year-old Evan Fournier steps into the rotation.

Second-leading scorer Danilo Gallinari goes down? Wilson Chandler steps into the starting lineup. Chandler is lost to one of the best bench units in the association? Young Anthony Randolph steps into the rotation.

Leading rebounder Kenneth Faried goes down? The ever-versatile Chandler moves from Gallo’s small forward spot to Manimal’s big forward spot and Fournier, who couldn’t find the floor a month ago, moves into the starting lineup.

Through it all, the ensemble kept winning — 13 out of 15 in March, seven of eight in April. The Nuggets were 24-4 after the All-Star break. Their 57 wins were the most since the franchise joined the NBA in 1976.

They remained impermeable Saturday in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series against the Warriors, but just barely. Miller’s game-winning layup with 1.3 seconds to play was a nice story. At 37, he said it was the first game-winning shot of his long career.

On the other hand, the fact that the ageless Miller had to bail out his team with an 18-point fourth quarter — the rest of the team scored eight — didn’t say much for anybody else. The Warriors’ starting backcourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson outscored their Denver counterparts, Lawson and Fournier, 41-23, leaving the bench a lot to make up. Miller outscored the Golden State bench by himself.

The Nuggets’ finished the regular season third in the NBA in assists at 24.4 per game. They managed only 16 in their 97-95 Game 1 victory. Without that active passing game, they were forced to play one-on-one, which is not their strength. They shot .447 as a team after averaging .478 for the season. Lawson was 6-of-15, Chandler 5-of-16 and Corey Brewer 4-of-12.

“We didn’t shoot the ball with much confidence all night long,” coach George Karl acknowledged. “We won tonight basically because of Andre Miller and our defense . . . . It’s just the beginning. One win is a good start. I think Golden State has shown that they’re going to be able to play on the same level as us and we’re going to have to continue to get better and continue to find other ways to win games.”

One way would be to score more. The Nuggets led the league in scoring this season, averaging 106.1 points per game. They scored fewer than 100 only 19 times in 82 games. Yet the Warriors, who gave up an average of 100.2 points per game during the season, held them below 100 on Denver’s home court.

“I thought we had a very good performance of executing our game plan,” Warriors coach Mark Jackson said. “We made plays. We made shots. We defended. . . . Overall, we kept a body on them. We were physical. I thought at times we were a little bit careless. That’s to be expected with a young basketball team. But I’m proud of my guys. We put ourselves in position to win the ballgame; unfortunately, fell short.”

If you suspect that Curry will shoot closer to his season average — .451 — than his Game 1 average — .350 — going forward, the Nuggets will need to improve their own offensive efficiency.

The good news is the war of attrition seems to be turning in their favor. Warriors all-star forward David Lee tore a hip flexor in Game 1 and was lost for the remainder of the playoffs. Meanwhile, Lawson is back from a torn plantar fascia and Faried may be sufficiently recovered from a sprained ankle to play in Game 2 on Tuesday.

“The strength of our team is we find ways to win,” Karl said. “Anthony Randolph has helped us win games. Corey Brewer has been spectacular at the end of games, as our lead guy. Our big guys, you don’t know who’s going to perform at a high level. We don’t have one guy that wins it, but Andre was obviously the guy tonight.”

Miller’s shot chart was characteristically unbalanced. Of his 16 field goal attempts, not one came from left of the lane. Even on the final play, when he drove the paint, going left around Warriors rookie defensive specialist Draymond Green, he slipped back to his right to make the winning layup, avoiding center Andrew Bogut, who was a tad late coming to help.

“He’s a big-time defender and I’ve got a lot of confidence in him,” Jackson said of Green. “We’ve got a group of rookies that came in the day after the draft, drilled every single day, got prepared and understand how to be successful on this level. And Draymond Green is an elite defender. And I feel extremely comfortable putting him on anybody, one through five. Andre Miller made a heck of a play.”

Asked to compare the winner to previous big shots, Miller had a quick answer.

“Well, I never hit a game-winning shot,” he said. “Never. I’ve taken a couple and missed or turned the ball over, but that was big for a first playoff game.

“I was tired, actually. I think both teams were tired. Me and Ty was going back and forth on who was going to get the ball — you know, ‘You bring it, I bring it.’ He saw that I was in a rhythm and I was just like, just suck it up. I knew who to put in the pick and roll to get to my sweet spot and I just took the shots.”

But even Miller acknowledged that with Bogut guarding the rim behind a Warriors zone defense — Golden State outscored Denver by 10 points while the 7-footer was on the floor — the Nuggets’ offense was largely stymied.

“A lot of things went wrong,” Miller said. “They got into a zone, slowed us down, we started relying on jump shots. You’ve got a couple young guys out there that’s not out there much.”

Having clawed their way back into the game in the fourth quarter without Lee, the Warriors seemed to gain confidence in defeat. Sunday’s news that Lee is out for the duration may moderate that confidence, but the Warriors know they have a defensive game plan that worked in Game 1.

“We haven’t played ’em since January,” Curry said of the Nuggets. “Their style hadn’t really changed since then. We knew what to expect. It was going to be an uptempo game. That’s how we like to play as well, so we tried to implement our own strengths throughout the course of the game. Hard-fought all the way to the end. One big play by Andre Miller changed the game. So we feel good about where we are going into Game 2.”

All year, the debate around the Nuggets has been whether their high-flying, rim-rattling, star-starved ensemble concept could thrive in the postseason the way it did in the regular season. Conventional wisdom says no. Even with a legitimate star in Carmelo Anthony, their full court, uptempo style got them out of the first round only once.

But they were so good in the regular season this year that they improved their postseason odds, earning home court advantage in the first round over a team that won 10 fewer games over the course of the first 82. Anything seemed possible, including gathering confidence while making quick work of their first-round opponent and giving themselves a chance to compete with the best of the West.

All of that is still possible, but the Warriors served notice in Game 1 that their strategy is to turn the Nuggets into jump shooters. If they continue to succeed at that, it’s going to be a long series, because the Nuggets aren’t particularly good jump shooters.

If the Nuggets are to gain credibility as a contender, they will need to dominate the Lee-less Warriors in Game 2 and demonstrate that they have an answer to the strategy that largely baffled them in Game 1.


The extraordinary success of George Karl’s nameless Nuggets

The play is called 3-chest. It’s a variation on the oldest play in basketball, the pick and roll. But in this case, the pick and roll is basically a decoy to draw the defense, opening the door to a kick-out pass to an open man on the perimeter.

For most NBA teams, this would be a means of setting up an open jump shot. For the Denver Nuggets, who score more points at the rim than any team in basketball, it’s a way of opening a lane to the basket.

After Wilson Chandler put up 29 points to lead the Nuggets to their 21st consecutive home victory Wednesday night, over the four-time champion San Antonio Spurs, I asked what got him going. After all, the team had struggled through the first half, scoring only 38 points. For the Nuggets, that’s enough to order medical exams all around.

Chandler’s 19-point second-half explosion got his team going and put the Nuggets one step closer to locking up the fourth-best record in the NBA despite playing without their two leading scorers.

“Just picking the right time to go attack the rim, and coach calling a 3-chest,” Chandler replied, with his usual brevity.

The Spurs converged on the pick-and-roll action and Chandler, playing the big forward role in which he presents the most difficult matchup to the defense, caught the kick-out and took the ball to the rim in a flash.

“He has a lot of opportunity, especially when he plays four (big forward), to do what we want done — attacking to the gap, try to get to the rim,” coach George Karl said. “And I thought putting him at four very early in the third quarter was kind of how the pendulum swung.”

Without Ty Lawson or Danilo Gallinari, their two leading scorers, the Nuggets won their 54th game of the season. One more win in their last four games will make this the best regular-season Nuggets team since they joined the NBA in 1976.

It is the most remarkable coaching job of Karl’s remarkable career, which now spans four decades and 1,128 wins, sixth-most in NBA history.

“I hope we can win 57 or 58,” he said. “The team has a resilient attitude towards whatever has to happen in a game to win it.”

What the Nuggets are doing makes no sense in the context of the conventional wisdom that has been built into an NBA fortress over the past 33 years, or since Magic Johnson and Larry Bird arrived on the scene:

Stars win championships.

Johnson’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics dominated the 1980s. Michael Jordan’s Bulls dominated the ’90s, except for his two-year foray into minor league baseball, when Hakeem Olajuwon’s Rockets took over.

The glory was spread around in the aughts, but it was still reserved for the megastars: Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in L.A., Tim Duncan in San Antonio, Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James in Miami.

The Nuggets didn’t have an all-star this season even when Lawson and Gallinari were healthy. Without them, they find themselves leaning on players who are or were coming off the bench, including Chandler and Corey Brewer, their leading scorers against the Spurs.

And yet, they keep on winning. They have the best home record in the NBA at 36-3. Their overall mark of 54-24 with four games to play trails only Miami (James, Wade), San Antonio (Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili) and Oklahoma City (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook).

“I think the team is a great example of executing the strategy and the system that the coach wants to employ,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

“I think more than any other team, they exemplify a group of guys accepting roles, whether it be minutes or their roles on the court and how they play in relation to the other players, on a consistent, game after game after game basis. He’s done a great job in keeping that together.

“In my mind, it’s hard to think of anybody who’s done a better job. And, at the same time, you don’t find quote unquote superstars on the team. He’s gotten them  to play for each other, be responsible to each other and understand that they’re better as a unit than they are with one guy doing his thing.”

Popovich ought to know. He is that rare, fortunate coach who has on his roster an unselfish, team-oriented superstar. Duncan enforces the team concept with teammates, which helps to explain the Spurs’ four titles during his career.

The Nuggets used to be pretty much the opposite, of course. When Carmelo Anthony was their headliner, they were the prototype of one guy doing his thing and a lot of other guys watching. It worked to a point, just as it’s working now for the Knicks, Anthony’s current team. The Nuggets made the playoffs every year. They just didn’t go very far once they got there.

It might not ever have changed if Anthony hadn’t forced his way out, yearning for the bright lights of Broadway and discouraged by the Nuggets’ apparent determination to rebuild with youth after the cast led by Anthony, Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith — the Knicks’ current nucleus — managed to get out of the first round of the playoffs only once.

But Karl, who has battled willful superstars for much of his coaching career, trying to get them to play within what he calls “teamness,” embraced the opportunity to coach an ensemble cast without having to tiptoe around big egos. In the absence of Lawson and Gallinari, an emerging leader on the floor is former Olympian Andre Iguodala, who had his first triple-double of the season Wednesday night.

Talk to Iguodala about the game and he sounds a lot like Duncan. Somebody gave him a chance to crow about the Nuggets’ progress this season in matching up with the Spurs, and he declined.

“I feel like they’ve got the edge on us mentally,” he said. “They’ve been there before. They know what it takes. They’re never out of it. I think Tim Duncan has done a great job of setting the tone throughout the rest of the guys on how to play basketball. That’s something we’re going to have to continue to grow on. They’re solid, and nothing really changes from one through 14. We’re starting to get there as far as our depth goes, but we can go a little deeper when we have those blowouts and then our young guys get in and they can continue to be hungry and not just play to play, but play to improve and become a better basketball player.”

With Gallinari having blown out an anterior cruciate ligament, he’s gone until next season. That means Chandler has to fill his role on the Nuggets’ marquee after being a bit player for much of the season.

“Defensively, he can cover any position on the court,” Karl said. “He can cover one through five. We haven’t put him on point guards a lot because we give that responsibility to Andre Iguodala a lot. And his team defense is first class. He covers up. He knows when to come off his man and I think he really does a great job of running and making defensive plays. And he’s a solid to good rebounder. Tonight, when they zoned up, he made two or three cuts that got easy baskets against their zone which I think took them out of it.

“I never expected him, after the way he played early in the season and not feeling comfortable, now to become one of our top three or four players. It’s pretty impressive.”

Karl hopes Lawson will be back on the court as soon as Friday night in Dallas, but there’s no telling if or when his starting point guard’s plantar fascia issues will allow him to resume playing at his previous high level.

In the meantime, Karl continues to mix and match among the players available, from 37-year-old point guard Andre Miller to solid center Kosta Koufos, from exuberant Kenneth Faried to freakishly athletic JaVale McGee, from 20-year-old Evan Fournier to the irrepressible Brewer, once stereotyped as a one-way defensive player. Brewer took 25 shots against the Spurs — “He took about five I want to kill him for,” Karl said — and scored 28 points.

“He has no conscience,” Chandler said. “He gambles on defense, he takes bad shots, but it works.”

“Nah, I don’t have no conscience,” Brewer agreed cheerfully. “If I see the basket, I’m going to shoot it. But it works out for us.”

If you get the impression that these guys enjoy playing with one another, you’re getting the picture of what’s going on in that locker room.

Given their dominant record at home, the Nuggets are focused on earning home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs to give themselves the best chance of eradicating their hard-earned reputation for early postseason flame-outs. Wednesday’s win brought them one step closer to locking up the No. 3 seed in the West, but the job still isn’t done.

Karl has little use for the NBA’s coach of the year award, in part because he’s built the sixth-most wins in association history without ever winning it. He’s been passed over countless times for coaching flavors of the moment you may not even remember. All you need to know about the legitimacy of the award is that Hubie Brown has won it more times than Phil Jackson.

Maybe the media types who vote will stumble on to a correct verdict this year. Blind squirrels and all that. It doesn’t really matter. People inside the game understand what an extraordinary job Karl has done this season. He’s never been better.


Nuggets find life after Gallo

It is in the nature of media types to be slightly more prone to hysteria in both directions than your average fan, given the modern fact of life that hysteria gets a lot more attention than moderation.

So it was that several tweeted their condolences for the Nuggets’ marvelous season the other night, all hope clearly at an end after forward Danilo Gallinari blew out an anterior cruciate ligament.

The Nuggets responded Saturday night by declaring reports of their demise premature. Playing without Gallinari and Ty Lawson, their two leading scorers, they scored more points than they have all season, 132, in a blowout of the Houston Rockets that kept them ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers in the race for the No. 3 playoff seed in the NBA’s Western Conference.

They also extended their home winning streak to 20, tying a record set in 1985.

Most remarkable was the effect on Andre Iguodala, who dominated the game at both ends, looking like an Olympian among mortals, which, of course, he was. He suffocated Rockets star James Harden, who finished with 14 points on 2-of-10 shooting. He orchestrated the offense with a game-high 14 assists. He even made jump shots, including two from long distance, on his way to 18 points. He came out with nine minutes of garbage time remaining three rebounds shy of a triple-double.

“I’ll get one,” he promised afterward. “If not in the couple of last games, I’ll get one in the playoffs.”

Coach George Karl inserted Wilson Chandler into the starting lineup for Gallo. It took a little while for the new starting group, still adjusting to Andre Miller for Lawson, to settle in. Of the 15 shots the starters took in the first quarter, the two Andres took 10. Chandler took one and failed to score. The Nuggets trailed 35-25.

I asked Chandler afterward if he felt as though he needed to adjust his game when he moved in with the starters.

“Yeah, probably a little less shots and more defense,” he said. “That’s not a big deal.”

In fact, that’s the skill Karl cited in selecting Chandler to take Gallo’s place in the starting lineup. He said before the game that the Nuggets’ identity will have to skew further to the defensive end without Gallo.

In quarters two through four, Chandler scored 21 points, finishing second only to Corey Brewer’s 22 off the bench among seven Nuggets in double figures. Without their two leading scorers, the Nuggets set season highs in points, assists (40), fast break points (35) and made field goals (54).

I asked Iguodala the same question about adjustments to his game in the absence of Gallinari and Lawson, to whom he has largely deferred at the offensive end this season, and for apparently good reason, given his difficulty making jump shots. He’s shooting .441 from the floor this season, 18 percentage points below his career average, and .308 from three-point territory, 20 points below his average.

“I’ve tried to do that all year: How can I fit in and be the most effective I can be without taking from the other guys, really making them better?” he said.

“And I felt like I’ve been able to do that, whether it shows up on the stat sheet or not. But when we have guys go down, you change some things up to try to make up for the loss, not by myself, but by making the other guys better — getting a few extra assists, a few extra points, a few extra rebounds. So it kind of worked out tonight. Going forward, we’re going to have to continue to do that as a unit.”

It’s probably a good idea not to go from manic depression over Gallinari’s injury to manic elation over a single performance in its wake. The Rockets were playing the second night of a back-to-back coming in from the west coast, the circumstance that provoked San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich’s scheduling protest four years ago in which he sat his three best players in Denver (and still nearly won). It’s extremely rare that the visitor wins in that situation. Iguodala was well aware.

“They got in really late last night, so I’m pretty sure they were kind of tired, and the altitude always seems to work in our favor, so all those things kind of play a factor in the game,” he said.

In the absence of Lawson (and third-string point guard Julyan Stone), 20-year-old rookie Evan Fournier has moved into the playing rotation, nominally as Miller’s backup at point guard. He’s really more of an off guard, but he and Iguodala provide enough ball-handling to allow the 37-year-old Miller adequate rest.

In fact, Fournier provides the closest thing to Gallinari’s offensive style, bringing a similar European skill set in a smaller package. He had 17 points Saturday. After scoring no more than 10 in any of the Nuggets’ first 73 games, he is averaging 14.3 in the four games he has served as Miller’s relief. It is beginning to look as if general manager Masai Ujiri has mined the uncertain lower portion of the NBA draft’s first round for another hidden gem. Kenneth Faried was the 22nd pick in 2011. Fournier was No. 20 last year.

In the absence of Gallinari, 23-year-old Anthony Randolph moved into the playing rotation, essentially replacing Chandler in the bench crew.

“I just like his defense,” Karl explained. “The first thing I wrote in my notes this morning was, ‘We can’t be a goof-around defensive team anymore.’ I’m not saying we’re going to be worse offensively, but our defense now has got to create offense. We have too many quarters that we kind of cruise-control our defense on the court when we’re shooting well and we’re scoring well, moving it well. I don’t think we can do that.”

Randolph rewarded Karl with seven rebounds and four steals (as well as 14 points) in 22 minutes. No Nugget had more than seven boards, but eleven of them contributed to a total of 46. Iguodala and Miller combined for 26 of the 40 assists.

“Dre Miller and I, we played together in Philly, and we had a few games like that, where we both had double-figure assists,” Iguodala said. “You’ve just got two guys who know how to find the open man, know how to move the ball a little bit. We’re trying to make the passing contagious because when we’re moving that ball and it’s not sticking, we’re really a good team, and George Karl, he’ll back that up.”

Karl admits he’s nervous about losing one of the best shooters, in Gallinari, from a team for which shooting — especially from long distance and the free-throw line — is the most obvious weakness.

“There’s no question it can’t be one guy,” he said before the game. “We can’t do that. Gallo is Gallo and everybody has his personality. I think because we’ve played a lot of different rotations and a lot of different ways, the comfort zone of finding a rhythm is what we need to do in the next six games. I think it’s do-able, but, you know, there could be a game or two that it might not look very good.”

Other than the first quarter, it didn’t look bad in the first game since Gallinari’s season ended. More than ever, it will need to be an ensemble effort. But in the absence of their two leading scorers, Iguodala demonstrated he’s capable of conducting the orchestra.


New Nuggets or old Nuggets? You decide

Before garbage time set in, which was just after Carmelo Anthony trudged off barely two minutes into the second half, last night’s game at the Pepsi Center looked less like the Nuggets vs. the Knicks than the new Nuggets vs. the old Nuggets.

For significant stretches — including to start the third quarter — Knicks coach Mike Woodson deployed Anthony, J.R. Smith and Kenyon Martin together. This was the nucleus of a Nuggets team that George Karl’s detractors blamed him for failing to get to a championship. Last night, that suggestion looked laughable.

Owing to last year’s lockout, it took slightly more than two years for Anthony to return to the verdict of the people after forcing the trade that seemed so discouraging at the time. If Denver, like Cleveland, could not even keep a star dropped in its lap by the benevolence of the draft (and Joe Dumars), and if a star was required to win a championship, maybe the Nuggets’ failure to win a championship throughout their existence is no accident.

Two years after the demolition, the picture looks vastly different. A few hours before tipoff, I asked Walt Frazier, the Hall of Fame player and tell-it-like-it-is analyst for the Madison Square Garden network, which is now the better team.

“I think your team because you’re a younger team and these players have yet to peak,” Frazier said.

“(Wilson) Chandler is still becoming a good player. Gallo (Danilo Gallinari) is a good player. I think you have a better nucleus than the Knicks. We have the superstar in Melo, but the thing is, with New York, I think sometimes that’s why we’re in the predicament that we’re in, because they’re always looking for star quality, whether it be a coach or a player. So they did not have the patience to wait for Gallo, to wait for Chandler and those guys to mature in order to try to get them to the next level. So once they saw that they could get a superstar like Melo, it created a lot of hoopla.

“Say if Gallo and Chandler had remained in New York and they were winning, they still would not have brought the hoopla that Melo brought in, which is what New York is kind of all about. It’s entertainment. It’s having that name, that pizzazz. New York had that when Melo came in, but now the team is kind of languishing. They have not moved up to that next level.

“You look at Denver, you don’t have that star quality, but your nucleus is team-oriented. These guys move the ball. To me, sharing means caring. And when you look at your guys’ play, man, 23 assists, 25 assists a game? That means that these guys like each other. They don’t care who scores. They’re just moving the ball around the perimeter to that open man. Being a former player, that means a lot to me. That tells me a lot about the character of the players on the team and how they relate to each other.”

During player introductions, Melo was greeted loudly but incoherently. More boos than cheers, but far from the distinct, extended syllable Nuggets fans have used to serenade Kobe Bryant ever since a certain incident in Eagle, Colorado. Once the game began, whenever Melo touched the ball, which was often, the crowd settled into the Kobe treatment.

Slowed by a sore knee — he left the Knicks after the game to return to New York and have it drained — Melo was a caricature of himself. A star is always a star in his head, so Melo handled the ball as much as ever, briefly surveyed his repertoire of one-on-one moves, and settled for long bombs too often, particularly because he couldn’t make one.

In just under 22 minutes on his old home floor, he scored nine points on 3-for-12 shooting, including 0-for-5 from long distance. When he walked off the floor for the final time just 2:15 into the second half, his team trailed by 26. The Nuggets outscored the Knicks by 18 while he was on the floor.

“I just didn’t have it,” he said afterward. “I tried, but I think it was time to give it some time and get to the bottom of it as soon as possible. It started tightening up, started stiffening up, there were some movements I couldn’t make. Moving laterally, I felt like I didn’t have any pop, any power. So I tried it in the second half, coming back out after halftime, and I couldn’t move out there. I’m going to go get it drained, get the fluid out, get to the bottom of it quickly, so I can get back on the court.”

This is basically the story of the Knicks’ devolving season, as Frazier explained:

“My concern is their age. I was excited with the acquisitions of (Tyson) Chandler and Rasheed (Wallace) and (Jason) Kidd, but all of those guys are near 40 years of age, so it was always crucial to me that they had to stay healthy. And that has been the problem — they have not been able to stay healthy, those three guys. And now you add in Melo, who’s also hurting, and now the loss of (Amare) Stoudemire, so it’s been very devastating for the team.”

For the record, Tyson Chandler is only 30, although he has a lot of mileage on him. Like Melo, he exited last night’s game early, with a knee bruise.

The Knicks’ main problem against the Nuggets was the same as most teams’ main problem against the Nuggets, especially in Denver: They couldn’t keep up. Although lots of people, including Frazier, say Melo is a better defensive player in New York than he was in Denver, there was little sign of it in his return. The Nuggets went small, as Karl likes to do, and put up a transition highlight reel, outscoring the Knicks in the paint 62-24.

“They were really good in pushing it and we were terrible in getting back,” was Woodson’s succinct summation.

The consensus that you need a superstar, and maybe two superstars, to win an NBA championship has been in place for so long that it is now considered to be something like a fact. General manager Masai Ujiri’s work sculpting a new Nuggets team out of ashes from the old is an attempt to challenge that conventional wisdom.

It’s not just the Melo trade. Ujiri convinced an interim GM in Portland to trade Andre Miller for Raymond Felton, which was just short of theft. And his trade of Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington for Andre Iguodala has improved the Nuggets’ defense immeasurably.

The Nuggets have won 10 in a row and are now 44-22, but none of it matters until they do something in the postseason. The same conventional wisdom that says you need a star or two says it shows up in the playoffs, when an ensemble cast can’t run and gun anymore.

After his new team’s evisceration of his old team — 117-94 was the final damage — Karl considered the star vs. ensemble meme for the one millionth time this season.

“I think we make a superstar as the game goes on,” he said. “We have a superstar in every game. Sometimes it’s the team, which I think is the best superstar, when it’s an unselfish, 30-assist night, finding the open man. Or a night where defensively we’re just creating so much energy by playing defense. But Ty (Lawson) plays as a stud some nights. Gallo plays as a stud some nights. AI is a hell of a defender almost every night. Our big guys get a lot of things done that they don’t get enough respect for.

“So, you know, OK, we don’t have that going into the game, but we manufacture it because we play well. Like tonight, we were looking at a stat sheet in the middle of the third quarter and nobody had more than five field goals. But we had like eight guys that had three or four or five field goals.

“I just don’t understand. I like my team and I’m proud of them from the standpoint of they would not allow those guys, you know, (with) the drama that went on here . . .  to play with that much pride tonight I thought was first class.”

Most NBA fans in Denver are well past the Melodrama by now. After all, it’s been two years, and frankly, the Nuggets are more fun to watch than they used to be. Last night’s game was a reminder as to why that is. When healthy, Melo is a great individual scorer. Always has been. Whether his career amounts to anything more than that remains to be seen.

“I think it’s time to let everything go,” Karl said. “It was probably too long getting it here and now that it’s over, there’s always going to be the base of both sides. There’s a portion that’s going to dislike Melo and there’s a portion that’s going to love Melo. But the majority of people, I think right now, hopefully, are getting excited about the team that we have at hand. I know we can’t win in the playoffs, but we’ll try very hard to prove some people wrong when the playoffs come.”


A chess match against a protege

If the Denver Nuggets wanted to dispute the notion that sure, they’re entertaining and fun and everything, but nowhere near ready for prime time, Friday night at a packed Pepsi Center was a good opportunity.

The Oklahoma City Thunder, last season’s Western Conference champions, came in with a record of 42-15. If they’re not going back to the NBA Finals, according to most experts, it’s only because the San Antonio Spurs are.

They brought with them two of the game’s transcendent stars — Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. And they’re coached by Scott Brooks, a former George Karl assistant who knows all his tricks.

Well, most of them.

The Nuggets entered the game with considerable confidence of their own. They’d gone 20-7 since the first of the year. Point guard Ty Lawson, 25, and forward Danilo Gallinari, 24, seemed on the verge of turning potential into consistent performance. And the Nuggets’ depth, the other side of the no-star coin, was giving them a clear advantage during those periods in every NBA game when reserves take over.

So they came out for the late ESPN tip and immediately dozed off. Andre Iguodala and Kenneth Faried turned the ball over before the crowd, which is instructed to stand until the home team scores, was permitted to sit down.

Barely two minutes in, Oklahoma City led 9-2 and Karl had seen enough. He removed Faried, his starting power forward and burgeoning media star, 2:28 in. He replaced him with Wilson Chandler, the first move in a chess match with his former protege that went on all night.

“I think it’s a combination of I’m a little tired of the first unit not being defensively responsible early in games,” Karl said afterward. “It’s not only Kenneth; there’s a few other guys on that list. And wanting to be small, wanting to play small against their big. I didn’t think they would take (Serge) Ibaka or (Kendrick) Perkins out of the game three minutes into the quarter. As I substitute later in the quarter, they always can go small and they go small, they like to play small.  We just got lucky on him being especially hot tonight.”

There was that. Chandler did his best Kevin Durant impression, leading the Nuggets with 35 points, including an unconscious six of seven from long distance, one of the Nuggets’ main weaknesses. He also outscored Durant by 10. Westbrook led all scorers with 38.

The move pretty much guaranteed the Nuggets a mismatch somewhere on the perimeter, whether on Chandler or Gallinari, because Ibaka, a shot-blocker, and Perkins, a rebounder, neutralize their main talents when they’re that far from the basket.

“It’s just easier to get a shooting four (big forward) open in basketball than anything else,” Karl said. “Most coaches protect the paint and Wilson is very clever and very aware of how to slip and how to space. I think we add another piece of nine or 10 guys that can help us win a basketball game and Wilson has helped us win two or three already this year.”

This selection among relative equals is both a blessing and a curse. Karl went nine deep Friday night, making spectators out of another handful of capable players — Anthony Randolph, Timofey Mozgov, Jordan Hamilton and Evan Fournier. The four he did bring off the bench — Chandler, Corey Brewer, Andre Miller and JaVale McGee — outscored their Oklahoma City counterparts (Kevin Martin, Nick Collison, Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher) — by an amazing count of 71-11.

“That’s a great asset to have,” Brooks said of Chandler. “That’s one of the strengths of their team. They’re deep. They have a lot of good players that play, a lot of skill players that can do multiple things and guard multiple players. Thirty-five points, you don’t expect that. Give him credit. He stepped up when the moment was needed and made big shots.”

The Nuggets’ bench dominated the second quarter and carried a 56-47 lead into the locker room at intermission. The starters came out in the third quarter pretty much the way they had come out in the first. Less than two minutes in, the lead was down to two.

Karl substituted even more quickly than he had in the first half, replacing Faried and Gallinari with Chandler and Brewer just 2:04 into the third quarter. The Nuggets took a 10-point lead into the fourth.

Of course, the flip side of depth is too many choices. Up 10, Karl decided to defend the paint with more size, so he reinserted big man Kosta Koufos. He also went to his veteran point guard, Andre Miller, whom he trusts during crunch time.

Focusing on defense sometimes produces runouts, which is what Karl was hoping would happen. It sometimes just produces conservative, halfcourt basketball, in which a team deploying Koufos and Iguodala at the same time is going to have trouble scoring. Which is what happened.

“I thought with the lead, I was hoping to be defensive-minded and I thought if we just make them miss shots, we would run,” Karl said. “And our running game was the reason we were probably somewhat in control of the game.

“We didn’t make them miss enough shots. That’s when I went more offensive-minded . . . I just have so much faith in Andre, but Corey probably played better than Andre down the stretch. I just didn’t feel ready for that one.”

So the lead disappeared. By the last possession of the game, the score was tied at 103. Karl called timeout with 17.6 seconds remaining. The play called for Lawson to dribble out most of the clock, then make a decision.

“When we give Oklahoma City any time to shoot, (Durant and Westbrook) are big shot-makers,” Lawson explained. “We didn’t want to give them a chance. We either wanted overtime or just win the game right there at the end of regulation.”

“Ty had an option,” Karl said. “We were trying to get a matchup maybe for Ty or Gallo. They switched well, they switched everything and then Ty had the space to play and he did.”

The Thunder switched out ace perimeter defender Thabo Sefolosha onto Lawson, who dribbled just outside the three-point line until the final seconds. Sefolosha gave him enough room to make sure he couldn’t dart around him. That was all Lawson needed.

He used the room to step just inside the arc and launch what was officially recorded as a 23-foot jumper over Sefolosha’s outstretched hand. It slipped through the net like a soft breeze. The game clock showed two-tenths of a second remaining. Lawson did a back-pedaling Mark Jackson shimmy.

“We switched and he made a tough shot,” Brooks said. “He made a contested shot over one of our best defenders. Sometimes that’s the way it goes. A lot of times we’ve made that stop. Give them credit. He stepped up and made a shot and it was a tough shot.”

The Nuggets pulled within a game and a half of the Memphis Grizzlies for the fourth playoff seed in the West and home-court advantage in the first round. That would be nice considering Karl’s team has won 10 in a row and 25 of 28 overall at the Pepsi Center.

The Nuggets are now 2-1 against both the Thunder and Grizzlies, two of the four teams ahead of them in the Western Conference standings. They are 1-1 against the Spurs and Clippers, the other two.

Yes, those are regular season results. And yes, the Nuggets’ fast-paced, take-it-to-the-rim style — they lead the NBA with more than 57 points a game in the paint — is harder to sustain in the postseason. The fourth quarter Friday was an illustration of how their offense sometimes stalls when forced to play out of half-court sets.

Nevertheless, they found a way to match up with a team considered their superior and they found a guy to make the big shot at the end, a guy their critics say they don’t have.

They’re now 38-22 with the confidence that they can play with anybody. All Karl has to do is figure out who’s playing well and who’s not — and do it before the game gets out of hand. For the third-youngest roster in the NBA, that’s not too bad.