Tag Archives: George Karl

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.

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.

My Super Bowl bet with George Karl

So we were wrapping up an interview the other day with Nuggets coach George Karl, who was named Western Conference coach of the month for January today, and he suddenly offered me a Super Bowl bet. You can listen to the exchange here.

Three questions:

1. Who do you think will win the bet?

2. Do you think the loser will actually pay up?

3. Where should we go for our lunch of Mexican food?

Serious question: Can anybody here make a shot?

Erik Spoelstra looked like a man who’d just received an early Christmas present.

His team hadn’t won in Denver since long before he started coaching it — 10 years ago, in fact — and it arrived Thursday under circumstances known in the NBA as a fait accompli. Since the 2006-07 season, teams flying in from the west coast to play the second of back-to-back games were 2-26 against the Nuggets, largely because they seldom got to bed before the sun rose the day of the game.

This is the circumstance that so infuriated Spurs coach Gregg Popovich in 2009 that he made his top four players healthy scratches in apparent protest of the schedule makers — and nearly pulled out a win with his bench.

In this case, Spoelstra, the Miami Heat coach, had no choice but to sit one of his stars. Dwyane Wade missed the game with a foot injury. To stretch his roster further, his other starting guard, Mario Chalmers, went out in the first quarter after taking a Kenneth Faried elbow to his triceps.

So the defending NBA champions were not only exhausted, they were also short-handed. Concluding a five-game road trip that had taken them from Atlanta to Los Angeles, the Heat was riding for a fall.

The Nuggets’ plan in such games is generally as simple as it is predatory: Take advantage of the visitors’ fatigue by having the public address announcer remind them of the elevation and then run them into the ground with a turbocharged offense fueled by Ty Lawson, their jet of a point guard.

Rested and waiting for the Heat after two days off and motivated by a narrow loss in Miami less than two weeks before, Thursday night’s late TNT game at the Pepsi Center (a made-for-TV 8:45 p.m. tip) seemed scripted for payback.

Instead, the Nuggets came out lethargic, inexplicably failed to cover Miami’s myriad three-point shooters and, as has been their custom in the early going of the new season, couldn’t make a three ball or a free throw themselves. They were down eight after one quarter and 12 at the half. At some point, it occurred to the tired visitors that they might actually win the thing.

“We came too far to let that game slip away from us,” LeBron James said afterward.

The Heat controlled the pace of the game until the fourth quarter, when the Nuggets made a frantic run that was too little, too late.

“A little bit of adversity, Dwyane being out, ‘Rio having to come out in the first quarter, and then the challenge of playing to the west coast to here,” Spoelstra said.

“We didn’t want to come in with any excuses. The thing about this ball club, the one thing you can’t knock them about is rising to challenges. I could tell even from the walk-through today that it wasn’t just about showing up and laying down, but really trying to overcome the odds. Everybody was so well aware of what the record is in the last three or four years here when you’re coming from the west coast. So it shows the character of our group.”

Seriously? Winning a regular season game now demonstrates character?

Fine, whatever. But what did it show about the new-look Nuggets, other than the possibility they were blinded by their own phosphorescent new yellow uniforms?

Well, let’s see. They’re not running at anything like the pace of the past. After leading the NBA in scoring the past two seasons, they rank 10th through their first nine games. They are down from 107 and 104 points per game to 98 in the early going this year. Against a team ripe to be run into the ground, they played at a lugubrious pace that produced just 66 through three quarters, finishing with 93 after their belated rush.

“They’re a smart team,” said veteran Andre Miller, who almost willed the Nuggets to victory on his own with a brilliant fourth quarter. “They’ve got guys over there that have been to the Finals and you’ve got veterans — Mike Miller, Rashard Lewis, you got Ray Allen, you got Shane (Battier). Those guys over there are smart and know how to control the game and know how to take out a transition. And they did that.”

The Nuggets’ decline in scoring is partly a function of pace, but it’s also a natural result of the fact that they aren’t shooting well. At all.

Through their first nine games, they rank 16th in field goal percentage (.436), 25th in three-point percentage (.300) and 30th (out of 30) in free-throw percentage (.647). Thursday night they missed six of 19 foul shots, including two in a row by Faried with his team down five points and 2:19 remaining in the game.

“The one that scares me a little bit is our free throws,” coach George Karl said. “Free throws have an effect on your other shooting. There’s a confidence that comes from making free throws and if you don’t make free throws, sometimes that confidence rubs off on other shots. It’s a mental thing.”

Lawson, allegedly their emerging star, was a zero, and I mean that strictly in the arithmetic sense. He totaled zero points in 36 minutes, missing all seven of his shots, not getting to the free throw line once and failing to ignite the frenetic pace he fired up the past two seasons.

“We’ve got to start making shots,” Karl admitted. “We’ve got to make free throws and we’ve got to make threes.”

It is way too early to judge the Nuggets’ big off-season move — trading shooter Al Harrington and 2-guard Arron Afflalo for Andre Iguodala — but it is not too early to observe that their best player for the moment is Miller, a 36-year-old guard, which is not that good a sign for a team ostensibly full of budding young stars.

If the Nuggets have a big three, they are Lawson, Iguodala and Danilo Gallinari, each averaging more than 35 minutes a game. Their shooting percentages, respectively, are .383, .441 and .322.

“We need more, probably, from Ty, Gallo and Iguodola,” Karl acknowledged.

And, if I may interject a question from the cheap seats, why is Kosta Koufos starting for this team? The 7-footer spent 14 minutes on the court doing a pretty good impression of a streetlamp. In the second half, Karl subbed him out after barely three minutes.

JaVale McGee gets most of the minutes in the middle — he had 18 points, six boards and four blocked shots in 21 on Thursday — but Karl doesn’t like to play him beside Faried for too long because they both tend to gamble defensively. When they’re on the floor together, it produces unreliable defensive rotations. But against a Miami team without a center, I could only conclude that Koufos either has pictures of somebody in the organization or holds the solution to the Greek debt crisis.

I know, it’s early. At 4-5, having played only three home games, the Nuggets are in the midst of surviving an early stretch in the schedule that has them playing nine of their first 12 on the road. Still, when your best-looking outside shooter is 22-year-old Jordan Hamilton, barely a member of the playing rotation when everyone is healthy, that’s a problem.

The Nuggets are built for speed and defense. Their offense is supposed to be fired by their defense and transition game. Theoretically, they don’t have to shoot from the perimeter much because they score so much in the paint and on the break.

They do win most of the hustle categories most of the time. They beat the Heat in points in the paint (50-24), fast break points (19-6) and second-chance points (22-12). They did a nice job crowding James, holding him to 11-of-23 shooting, although this left lots of three-point shooters wide open, including young Norris Cole, who hit the dagger with 1:03 remaining and the Nuggets down by one.

Unfortunately, the home team’s crooked shooting made all their extra hustle possessions necessary just to stay close. Miami had one fewer field goal on 11 fewer attempts. The Heat outscored them 39-18 from long distance. Without Wade and Chalmers, Spoelstra surrounded LeBron with three-point shooters and dared the Nuggets to cover them. The Nuggets largely declined. Battier hit six of seven threes; Miller, four of eight.

“There’s a process,” Karl said. “Our personality is different. Andre Iguodola is different from Al and Arron and we have to learn this team’s personality of winning. I don’t think we’re that far away from getting that done.”

I wouldn’t be surprised. No one in the NBA is better than Karl at adapting to his talent. On the other hand, it’s hard to win consistently in the NBA if you can’t shoot, and it’s really hard to win playoff series if you can’t shoot.

Not long ago, TNT analyst Steve Kerr said he thought Gallinari had regressed since coming to Denver from New York. In his early days as a Knick, Kerr thought he would be a great three-point shooter. Now he’s a guy who seems to shoot mostly off-balance, fadeaway jumpers. He’s shooting .222 from long distance in the early going.

Granted, there’s plenty of time to work out the kinks of yet another chemistry experiment. But if the shooting doesn’t come around in a month or two, general manager Masai Ujiri might have to look at making another move.

NBA put its thumb on the scale for the Lakers

From the beginning, it was a strange suspension.

For one thing, former players who often take players’ side in these things were surprised it wasn’t longer.

“I think he deserved more . . . maybe ten games,” said TNT’s Shaquille O’Neal.

For another, the number was an odd one, and not just in retrospect. When NBA commissioner David Stern announced on April 24 that Metta World Peace, formerly known as Ron Artest, would serve a seven-game suspension for a vicious elbow to the head of Oklahoma City’s James Harden, the Lakers had one regular-season game remaining. You didn’t have to be Albert Einstein to do the math.

“I knew it was going to be the first round of the playoffs,” TNT’s Charles Barkley said that night. “I don’t think that’s a fair or unfair suspension. If it was ten games, that would’ve been fair. I knew it was going to be between five and ten, but I’m surprised they didn’t make it just the first round of the playoffs because he could come back for a Game 7.”

My memory is by no means comprehensive, but I’ve been covering the NBA since 1988 and cannot remember a previous instance when a disciplinary edict from the league office suddenly injected a significant player into a playoff series that was even through six games.

And make no mistake: Artest’s return Saturday night tipped the balance of this first-round series the Lakers’ way. Don’t take my word for it. Listen to his coach.

“We all played well, but I’d be remiss if I did not talk about Metta,” Mike Brown said after the Lakers’ 96-87 victory dashed the Nuggets’ hopes of a first-round upset.

“He was huge tonight. We put him on (Danilo) Gallinari, we put him on Andre Miller, we put him back on Gallinari, we put him back on Andre Miller, and his presence helped out a lot. I didn’t realize that Andre Miller and Gallinari were a combined 2-for-19.

“He’s long, he’s physical. He knows how to play different positions defensively, whether it’s the pick-and-roll, post-up, pin-down game. But he made some plays tonight. He went in for a steal or something like that, he was out of position, and then he sunk back into the paint and tipped the ball away. I mean, he made plays tonight that won’t show up in the stat sheet that were absolutely freaking amazing for us defensively. Just his presence alone helped us out. And that’s what we missed the first six games.

“Having said that, you’ve got to give our guys credit because they stepped up and found a way to win those games without him. But he was monstrous for us tonight. Monstrous, on both ends of the floor.”

Monstrous. Interesting choice of words. Imagine how history might have changed if Stern had done what Barkley and many others expected, ruling Artest out for the first round of the playoffs. The Nuggets had won Games 5 and 6. The momentum seemed to be flowing their way.

Even without Brown’s testimony, Artest’s influence on the outcome of Game 7 was unmistakeable. In the forty-three minutes, forty-one seconds he played, the Lakers beat the Nuggets by eighteen points, meaning that in the four minutes, nineteen seconds he didn’t play, the Nuggets won by nine. Artest’s plus 18 was the best plus/minus number for any player on either team.

So the question demands to be asked: Did Stern purposely make the suspension seven games, not the first round of the playoffs, in order to give one of the league’s marquee teams, in one of its largest television markets, an insurance policy in case it was forced to a critical Game 7 in the first round?

Barkley wasn’t the only one who noticed the subtle difference between a seven-game punishment with one regular-season game remaining and simply ruling Artest out of the first round, however long it lasted. About ninety minutes before Game 7, Nuggets coach George Karl was asked whether the suspension that allowed Artest to jump into the series at its most critical moment was appropriate.

“I don’t know what the appropriate one is, but I just don’t understand seven,” Karl said. “Why seven? Why not the end of the series? Why seven? It really feels uncomfortable in the last thirty-six hours, twenty-four hours. We’ve spent so much time on ‘what if.’ What are they going to do? I’m not sure they know what they’re going to do with him. I know we’re going to be the reactor, which is something I’m not thinking is necessarily making me happy right now.”

For those who tend toward conspiracy theories, the officiating in the series will provide more encouragement. And frankly, the complaints are difficult to refute. The Nuggets led the NBA in free throw attempts during the regular season at 26.7 per game. The Lakers ranked ninth at 24.1.

In their playoff series, it was the Lakers who led in free throw attempts. They got 158 in seven games, or 22.6 per. The Nuggets got 142, or 20.3. That put the Lakers 1.5 below their season average; the Nuggets were 6.4 below theirs. That’s a reduction in Nuggets free throw attempts of nearly 24 percent from regular season to playoffs.

Is this because the Nuggets suddenly got less aggressive against the Lakers? Not at all. In fact, there was a strange pattern to the free throw attempts. Through the first three games, the Nuggets led, as their reliance on penetration suggested they would. They had 72 free throw attempts through three games, or 24 per game.

From there, the foul shots awarded to Denver suddenly fell precipitously. They got 70 in the final four games, an average of just 17.5, or a remarkable 9.2 fewer than their regular season average. The Lakers, by contrast, got 61 through the first three, or 20.3 per, and then 97 in the final four, an average of 24.3, which was slightly greater than their regular season average.

This difference was most noticeable in the final two games of the series, when the Lakers were awarded 53 free throws to the Nuggets’ 31. That’s an amazing differential considering the two teams split these games and the Nuggets’ aggressive style produced the most foul shots in the association during the regular season.

Karl tried not to dwell on it, but following Game 7, when the Nuggets shot just 14 free throws to the Lakers’ 23, he seemed clearly exasperated.

“The game was so physical,” he said. “I mean, it was so, bang, push, shove, grab, hold, that I think their size won over our speed.”

Do you really have to be a conspiracy nut to observe that the statistics suggest the league’s representatives on the floor tilted increasingly toward the Lakers as the series went along?

Maybe so. Call me a homer if you like. I’ve never been fond of reflexive complaints about bias in officiating. I tend to believe incompetence is a more likely explanation than conspiracy for poor officiating. In fact, I used to publish an annual list of the NBA’s ten worst referees — alongside the ten best — in the Rocky Mountain News.

But among the factors that contribute to bad officiating in the NBA is the tendency to favor stars — the Lakers have three; the Nuggets, none — as well as a subconscious tendency to favor historically successful teams over historically unsuccessful ones. You don’t have to believe in an explicit conspiracy to believe that referees subconsciously favored the Lakers, and that this tendency increased as the series went along.

Call it sour grapes if you like. I know Lakers fans will. But when you combine the strange term of Artest’s suspension with the inexplicable turnaround in the pattern of foul calls, I’m telling you, there are folks in Denver who will be wondering what happened here for quite some time.

A generation later, George Karl switches sides

It was the most surprising, inspiring victory in the long and not particularly accomplished history of the Denver Nuggets. And it completed one of the great postseason upsets in the NBA to that point — the first No. 8 seed to beat a No. 1 seed in the first round of the playoffs.

On the other hand, George Karl, who was coaching the No. 1 seed that day, calls it “the worst loss of my life,” which is saying something.

I was there that Sunday afternoon, at the old Seattle Coliseum, so I went down to the basement and dug out the original game book. It is a little more than eighteen years old now. The officials were Jess Kersey, Dick Bavetta and Jack Nies. Bavetta, unbelievably, is still officiating at the age of seventy-two.

Karl remembers it as “Mutombo beating us in Seattle,” perhaps because the iconic image is the Nuggets center lying on the hardwood when the overtime was done, holding the basketball above his head with both hands, a delighted grin on his face. With fifteen rebounds and eight blocked shots, Dikembe Mutombo did, indeed, play a major role.

But the stars for the Nuggets that afternoon were reserves. Point guard Robert Pack came off the bench to replace an ineffective Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and led them with twenty-three points on eight-for-fifteen shooting, including three of five three-pointers.

The late Brian Williams, who would change his name to Bison Dele before being murdered by his brother eight years later, put up seventeen points and nineteen rebounds in thirty-four minutes off the bench, the most inspired performance of his career. When I asked him afterward what had gotten into him, he looked at me as if astonished it wasn’t obvious: “That was desire!” he said.

Eighteen years later, the Nuggets have a chance to add another improbable first-round upset to their resume, this time with Karl coaching for them instead of against them. His syntax was somewhat twisted as he reflected on that Thursday night after the Nuggets beat the Lakers to even their series at three games apiece, but his sentiment was not:

“I’m just hoping to become Denver Nugget history, (from) the worst loss of my life to hopefully the best win in Denver Nugget history. The worst loss is Mutombo beating us in Seattle, and maybe I can put another one up on the board that rocks history a little bit.”

To do it, the Nuggets will need exactly what they brought to the Seattle Coliseum that day a generation ago: Desire. They will need to want it more. They will need to play with the audacity of conviction and make the Lakers, like the Sonics on May 7, 1994, struggle with the weight of expectations and gathering gloom.

“You’ve got two histories against you,” Karl said. “You’ve got Game 7 and you’ve got 3-1 series. You’ve got both of them working against you. I think we might be too young to understand all that, so I might keep it away from them. I’m not sure we’re going to talk a lot about anything except the energy of the game and how important it is to us.”

Historically, the road team wins Game 7 about twenty percent of the time. The last time a team came from a three-games-to-one series deficit to win was six years ago, when the Suns did it . . . to the Lakers. In ten tries, the Nuggets have never done it.

Since frittering away their series lead, the Lakers have engaged in some finger-pointing. Coach Mike Brown and star Kobe Bryant have blamed big men Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. For Game 7, L.A. gets back the former Ron Artest, who changed his name to Metta World Peace in an Orwellian response to his history of violence, most recently enhanced by a vicious elbow to the head of Oklahoma City Thunder guard James Harden. His seven-game suspension ended with Game 6.

“We’ve got to continue to get to the paint, we’ve got to hopefully fall into the three ball a little bit more than it has been in the first five games and defend them better than we did (in Game 6),” said Karl, who turns sixty-one today. “And if we do all that stuff, I think it’ll be a fourth-quarter game and we’ll figure out how to beat that closer system that you guys have said we can’t win because we don’t have a closer.”

That’s a reference to the knock on the Nuggets at the end of close games since trading Carmelo Anthony in the middle of last season. Playing with a deep ensemble cast, they have demonstrated the unpredictable virtues of true team basketball. At the same time, it’s never quite clear who they want to take the big shot at the end of games. If Ty Lawson is hot, as he was in Game 6, it would surely be him. If Danilo Gallinari is on, it might be him. Just as likely, it’s whoever’s open.

The last time the Nuggets played a Game 7 was also eighteen years ago, in the series that followed their upset of Karl’s Sonics. The Utah Jazz won the first three games of their best-of-seven, second-round series, then the Nuggets roared back to win three straight, just as they had come back from a two-games-to-none deficit to tie the Sonics series.

Game 7 was in Salt Lake City on May 21, 1994. The Nuggets shot poorly and fell behind early, trailing by seven after one quarter, by eight at halftime and by fifteen after three quarters. They did their best to narrow the gap in the fourth, but Utah prevailed, 91-81. Karl Malone had thirty-one points, fourteen rebounds and six assists, playing all but two minutes of the game.

Eighteen years later, Karl hopes to improve his record to 1-1 in memorable Nuggets playoff upsets.

“I just want to help them,” he said. “My whole goal in Game 7 is coach ’em up and help ’em have a chance to kick somebody and make history. It’d be fun. It’d be fun for me. It’ll be a great opportunity. It’s been a great challenge.”