NEW YORK -- George Karl was scared.
Though his Nuggets arrived at Madison Square Garden after winning at Indiana, Karl was unsure his team was ready for New York. And for perhaps the first time since Patrick Ewing was on the Knicks' roster, the reason was not about the city's distractions, but the quality of its basketball team.
"I refuse to watch the tape of their games with Miami," Karl said before the Knicks gave him another tape to avoid in defeating Denver 112-106 on Sunday night to improve to 8-0 at home. "Those would make me throw up."
It isn't often that a game in early December can be considered truly important to the grand scheme of a season, but Sunday's showdown between two of the most intriguing teams in the NBA was a benchmark. Many coaches judge progress in 20-game blocks, and at the quarter mark of the season, the Knicks and Nuggets demonstrated the traits of two clubs worthy of the playoffs but still with questions to answer.
For all of the false bravado of years past, the Knicks entered a legitimate title contender, and not just because they led the Eastern Conference, but because of the signature wins along the way -- over the Spurs in San Antonio and the aforementioned two blowouts of the Heat, the last of which prompted LeBron James to convene a team meeting of his defending NBA titlists.
"The Knicks are an explosive offensive team," Karl said. "And they're a good defensive team; they're not going to give you points. You're going to have to execute and hopefully make them miss some shots and some of their bad shots will turn into good offense for us. And they have a mental competitiveness that they haven't had [in some time]. What I see is a team that when it gets down in the fourth quarter or in close games, they are kind of playing with a mad dog personality."
Indeed, many of those traits were on display Sunday. Down 88-80 early in the fourth quarter, the Knicks held the Nuggets to a mere two made shots over the next 6:31 while riding three three-pointers and three dunks to a 99-92 lead they would never give up. With Jason Kidd playing point guard much of the night, the Knicks turned the ball over nine times (leading to seven Denver points), the kind of careful performance that has become commonplace for a team that leads the NBA in fewest turnovers at 11 per game.
"Our defense picked up," Knicks coach Mike Woodson said after the game. "But we have been pretty solid throughout the course of this early season. In the fourth quarter we took the lead and did what we had to do to secure the win."
The Nuggets brought with them the reputation of a dark horse contender in the West but a record more befitting a team trying to figure out just what kind of horse it is. A young roster and an early-season schedule with 15 of their first 21 games on the road has made the Nuggets an inconsistent bunch, turning the ball over almost 16 times a game and shooting 67.8 percent from the free-throw line.
"We haven't had many hot nights," Karl said. "The free-throw line has been a nightmare and the three-ball has been inconsistent. Sometimes it's hard when you're the second- or third-youngest team in the NBA to gain confidence, and we got out of the gate slow. We're winning with grit and determination as much as we are with skill and making shots. But we still score points."
True, 106 points is nothing to sneer at, but when it comes attached to 16 more turnovers (accounting for 22 Knicks points), the cost is a 10th road loss. And when it comes with Ty Lawson's following up a 19-point first half by shooting 1-for-5 for four points in the second half, the impact is as damaging to a superstar-less team as is letting the league's most prolific three-point-shooting club connect on 40 percent (12-of-30) from behind the arc.
"I tell the team all the time, I don't mind losing to a good team, but we lose because we give them things, we give them gifts," Karl said after the loss. "We have to get better not giving teams their strengths."
As the season steams into the holidays and beyond, the Knicks and Nuggets face different realities than what each started the season with. And neither faces a clear road map.
For the Knicks, it is to grow accustomed to being the hunted, a team by which others mark progress, a circled date on the schedule.
"We're playing in a better mode, but this is the type of game that we're going to have to make a step in a good direction to win," Karl said of the matchup with the Knicks before tip-off.
Healthy and with roles well-defined, the Knicks are a capable front-runner. But Amar'e Stoudemire's return looms, and with it the potential for a rerun of last year's schematic dysfunction. Equally risky is a roster with six players who have already celebrated their 35th birthday.
The biggest hurdle these Knicks may face, though, is internal. For all of the fire that seems to fuel these Knicks -- that prompts a Carmelo Anthony to return from a lacerated finger to drop 34 points on his old team -- at times it seems to undo them as well. And when a whistle is blown in the wrong direction, getting back on defense is often secondary to arguing the call. Games will be played too tightly, too fiercely, for Anthony to get whistled for the kind of technical foul he earned late in the third quarter Sunday night after exploding in anger at a reach-in foul on Danilo Gallinari. The placid demeanor the Spurs demonstrate may not be fun, but it wins in high-pressure games.
Denver's future will be forged by execution, not attitude. Even with the elite ball-denying talents of Andre Iguodala, the Nuggets rank only 24th in defensive efficiency (points allowed per possession). Of course, it's difficult to stop other teams from scoring when you allow them to shoot 39.2 percent from three-point range, third worst in the league. Complicating all that the Nuggets do is the makeup of the roster, which doesn't have the kind of superstar who can save a team on an off night. Perhaps maturity will make stars out of Lawson and Kenneth Faried, but right now, in this season, the Nuggets must win like a clock, with all gears and springs working properly.
Like a political poll, the Knicks' victory Sunday is no more than a snapshot of the season so far, but the trends are clear for both of these teams. The campaign starts now.