Thursday March 25th, 2010

Five things we learned from the Nuggets' 113-99 loss to the Celtics on Wednesday ...

1. The Nuggets can't afford to wait for George Karl's return. Their loss Wednesday was their third in a row since interim coach Adrian Dantley took over for Karl, who remains in Denver undergoing treatment for throat and neck cancer. "It's hard for him,'' said Carmelo Anthony of Dantley, "first time he's head coach losing three straight like this. But it's nothing he's not doing.''

The Nuggets are beginning to rally around Dantley, who must make this team his for whatever length of time he remains in charge. Karl's priority is to recover his health, and that recovery may prevent him from returning to coach this season. The bottom line for his team is that they must find a way to remain in contention regardless of who is coaching them.

Too much should not be made of this loss in particular, as no one was circling Denver's visit to Boston as a likely win; the one that got away was the preceding night's 109-104 loss at New York. Dantley made a nice move in finding eight minutes in the second half for rookie point guard Ty Lawson, who had been sidelined for 12 games by a left shoulder contusion. While Lawson wasn't sharp, he wasn't the reason the Nuggets lost; but his return may pay off with improved play off the bench over the three remaining games of this week-long trip.

Denver VP Mark Warkentien is traveling with the Nuggets in hope of empowering Dantley to do things his way -- to not worry about what Karl might do, but to make the best decisions as he sees them. He's quickly buying into that approach. "We can't really worry about later on,'' he said. "We've got to take each game as a playoff game because the conference is so tight. We can't be worried about the future, we've got to try to win these games now.''

Can he view this responsibility as an opportunity? "This is as tough as it gets right here,'' he said with a laugh. "It's not like I came at the beginning of the year. I come in, coach is sick, tough conference. I get a funny call from my wife every night: She says, 'Are you sure you want to get in on this heat?' I just chuckle with her.''

2. They can't afford to wait for Kenyon Martin's return either. The Nuggets are 9-8 without their defensive leader. The Celtics scored 58 points in the paint and attempted 20 more field goals than their guests. "We're just playing soft, I guess,'' said Anthony. "Just soft basketball. We're not known for being like that as a team.''

Martin appears upbeat about his chances of returning in strong form from left knee patella tendinitis next month in time for the playoffs. In the meantime the Nuggets must explore ways to develop Nene's role in the offense and cut off lanes to the basket. "We know we need Kenyon,'' Dantley acknowledged before the game Wednesday. "He's our quarterback on the defensive end. Everybody feeds off Kenyon -- a lot of times we're switching on perimeter players, and Kenyon can defend them.''

After the loss the coach had toughened his message. "The thing the last four or five games is offensive rebounds, second-chance points and points in the paint,'' said Dantley, who was frustrated to see the normally weak-rebounding Celtics come up with 17 offensive rebounds. "They just outhustled us.''

3. They shouldn't worry (yet) about Anthony moving to New York. On Tuesday he responded to Donnie Walsh's reiteration to the New York Post that the Knicks will extend their cap space if need be out to 2011, when Anthony could become a free agent. "I really don't know what's going to happen the next year,'' Anthony told reporters in New York. "I don't know what's going to happen. But I don't see why anybody wouldn't want to play here in New York.''

Don't read too much into this. The Nuggets have the means to take Anthony off the market by signing him to an extension this summer, and why wouldn't he consider signing it? If he waits until 2011 he'll be negotiating under the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, which is expected to be less lucrative for players.

4. The losing streak must end Friday. After winning eight of nine, the Nuggets have now lost three in a row. Next up is a redemptive game at Toronto Friday against the forgiving defense of the .500 Raptors. "At this point we've just got to worry about the next game,'' said point guard Chauncey Billups. "We can't worry about who's in front of us, who's behind us.''

5. Billups can help lead them out of this. He was 3-of-9 for 12 points against Boston, but that was a rare off night for Billups, who is averaging a career-best 19.8 points. As reported by the Denver Post's Benjamin Hochman, no NBA player in his 13th -- or even his 12th -- season has ever improved his scoring to a career-high.

Not only has he continued to grow more comfortable in the Nuggets' wide-open offense, but Billups insists he feels younger than he should. "My first four years -- maybe five -- I consider them all half-years,'' he said. "I feel like I'm in my prime even though I've been in the league for 13 years.''

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