Nuggets hope Billups can provide cure for their recent playoff woes

Monday April 6th, 2009

We know that no one wants to face the Cavaliers in Cleveland and the bottom teams in the Western Conference are fighting tooth and nail to avoid the Lakers in the first round. But how about a team no one is that interested in playing anywhere?

How about the Denver Nuggets?

As the NBA prepares to enter its second season, there will be a premium placed on players who "know how to win." And over the last several years, few players have been more worthy of that title than Chauncey Billups, a six-time conference finalist, two-time NBA finalist and one-time NBA champion in Detroit.

"Chauncey wins games because of his nature, his fundamental makeup," Nuggets coach George Karl said recently of the 2004 Finals MVP. "He wins games because he understands team and possessions and the value of [playing] together, probably more than most. And then he still has that window of skills that's at a pretty high level. I think too many times over the last couple of years we've won games because of talent and skills rather than the fundamental nature of the game. You win at the end of games with your fundamental nature as much as you do with your talent."

In years past, many teams would prefer a first-round matchup with Denver. They figured the Nuggets' selfish attitude would cost them. And it has. But with Billups on board, the Nuggets are a dangerous dark horse in the West.

I'm going to try my best to lead the guys, kind of show them the way," Billups told the Denver Post. "I think we've got some great talent and some guys [who] want to win. It's just a matter of going out and doing it every single night."

(All stats and records are through Sunday.)

NBA Power Rankings
1 Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 2
You get the feeling both the Lakers and Cavs are hoping someone surges ahead in the standings so they can start resting some key players. Last week, Lakers coach Phil Jackson, with his team falling behind Cleveland in the race for the No. 1 overall seed, suggested he might start limiting the minutes of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. But back-to-back losses by the Cavaliers have the Lakers right back in the mix for home-court advantage. Not that Bryant seems to care. "In my years of experience, if you're going to be a champion, you should win on the road anywhere," Bryant said. "The better team is going to advance, no matter where you play."
2 Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 1
It looked like the Cavs were headed for a Celtics-like swoon after back-to-back losses to the Wizards and Magic. That is until LeBron James dropped a 38-point, seven-rebound, six-assist line in Cleveland's thumping of the Spurs on Sunday. Further preventing any late-season stumble is the fact that three of the Cavaliers' last five games are at home, where they are 37-1.
3 Orlando Magic
Last Week: 3
Orlando Magic (57-19)
To win or not to win: That is the question for the Magic. Orlando is just a half game behind Boston for the No. 2 seed and home-court advantage in the second round. But with that seed brings a potential first-round matchup with the Pistons, who have ousted Orlando in the last two postseasons and are 3-0 against the Magic this season. The No. 3 seed offers a possible matchup with Miami, which has dropped three of four to the Magic this season.
4 Boston Celtics
Last Week: 4
They already have one surefire nominee for the All-Defensive team in Kevin Garnett and a second candidate in Rajon Rondo. How about a third? Center Kendrick Perkins' (8.2 rebounds, 2.0 blocks per game) solid play in Garnett's absence has a started a swell of support for the sixth-year center to make the team. "If he doesn't make the All-Defensive team, it will be a conspiracy," forward Paul Pierce told the Boston Herald. "I can't think of anybody in the league who has done a better job than he's done this year."
5 Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 6
Jason Terry and Nate Robinson have been locked in a duel for the Sixth Man Award all season, but J.R. Smith is starting to force his way into the discussion. Two nights after putting 28 points on Utah in a Denver victory, Smith scored 34 in a win against the Clippers on Saturday. Smith even has his own campaign manager to lobby for the award. "I've made myself [campaign manager] in support of my teammate," guard Dahntay Jones told local reporters. "Nobody has had performances off the bench like him."
6 San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 5
Where is that panic button? A 20-point rout by the Cavs is one thing, but it's the one-point home loss to the Thunder that really stings. What's more, it's looking like the heavy early-season workload is starting to wear on Roger Mason. In his past four games, he has scored in double figures once and hasn't cracked 34 percent shooting over that span.
7 Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 9
I've been saying all season that this would be their "take their lumps" year, a season in which they make the playoffs and get pasted in the first round. I'm not wavering, despite the fact that they have waxed four teams by 20 or more points in the last two weeks. Why? Because Sunday's loss to Houston dropped Portland to 1-13 on the road against the West's top-eight teams.
8 Houston Rockets
Last Week: 7
Is it just me or is Yao Ming's latest T-Mobile commercial funnier than the Apple one he did with Mini-Me? Yao's 21-12 effort against the Blazers nudged Houston past Portland in the conference standings and (for now) positioned the Rockets for home-court advantage in the playoffs. Of course, they are still only three games from the eighth seed, too.
9 New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 10
Byron Scott hasn't been too pleased with his team's play recently. "We still have not shown that we are a very mature bunch of athletes," Scott said. "It's very frustrating." It could get worse: The banged-up Hornets' remaining six games are all against teams with winning records.
10 Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 12
Jason Kidd achieved another milestone on Sunday when he passed Magic Johnson on the NBA's all-time assist list after dishing out a franchise-record 16 first-half assists against Phoenix. The Mavericks might be about to achieve something themselves: After spending most of the second half of the season in the eighth spot, Dallas is just one game back of the reeling Jazz for seventh place.
11 Utah Jazz
Last Week: 8
Utah Jazz (47-30)
Utah's road woes are becoming absurd. Sunday's victory at New Orleans was the Jazz's first road win against one of the West's top-eight teams all season. That doesn't bode well for a team with hopes of making a deep run. "We've got to stay together," forward Carlos Boozer said. "We've got to believe in each other again, we've got to fight for each other, we've got to fight for our team."
12 Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 11
Atlanta Hawks (43-34)
It's happening again: The Hawks are stumbling into the playoffs. Atlanta has lost three straight and six of 10. Fortunately, only one of its remaining five games is against a team with a winning record. "We've been grinding all year in terms of being in some tough situations with the injuries and the schedule, and our guys have responded all year," coach Mike Woodson said. "They know what's at stake. Our main goal is trying to finish strong and put ourselves in a position to lock up that fourth spot."
13 Miami Heat
Last Week: 13
Miami Heat (41-36)
How important are the final five games of the season? They could mean the difference between a first-round series win against a beatable Atlanta team and a boatload of confidence going into next season, or a pounding at the hands of conference powerhouses Orlando or Boston. You pick. "The next [five] games are going to be really important to us," guard Dwyane Wade said. "All we have to do is continue to play this way."
14 Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 14
Phoenix Suns (42-35)
Just when you thought the Suns, who were averaging 119.8 points under Alvin Gentry and had topped 130 six times since the All-Star break, were going to make a charge toward the playoffs, they go and give up 81 points in the first half to the Mavericks. Speculation had been that Gentry would retain his job after this season, but getting blown out on national TV against a playoff rival isn't going to help his cause.
15 Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 16
April is probably not the best time for forward Thaddeus Young to be sitting in front of his locker, crutches by his side, telling the media that his ankle sprain was his worst since high school. The Sixers say they expect Young (15.2 points) back for the playoffs, but his injury doesn't sound minor. "When I first hurt it, I felt the pop, and I didn't think things were good," Young said.
16 Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 15
Chicago Bulls (37-40)
In a perfect world, the Bulls would give their walking wounded (a list that includes John Salmons, Tyrus Thomas and Kirk Hinrich) a few days off before the playoffs. But the Bulls are still neck-and-neck with the Pistons for the seventh seed. Translation: Shake it off. "It's so tight, there's no leeway," coach Vinny Del Negro said. "We have to find ways to get wins. Right now, we need all the bodies we can get."
17 Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 17
Raise your hand if you believe the Pistons' decision to shut down Allen Iverson was strictly about Iverson's health -- didn't think so. More likely, coach Michael Curry didn't want to take any minutes away from Will Bynum, the mini-Microwave who scored 32 points in the key win against Charlotte on Sunday. "It just didn't work; it didn't blend well," Curry said of the Iverson experiment. "There was a lot to do with guys changing roles and accepting different roles you have to play. It's unfortunate things didn't go as we thought they would."
18 Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 18
Can we put the Bobcats' "surge" in perspective, please? Charlotte likely will be watching the playoffs from home again this season and struggle to surpass 35 victories. I'm all for applauding Larry Brown for keeping them in the playoff chase, but how about letting them get to .500 before we anoint them as an up-and-coming franchise?
19 Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 22
Sunday's loss to the Knicks not only snapped their six-game winning streak but it also officially (pause for laughter) eliminated them from playoff contention. Still, Andrea Bargnani's strong second half has given Toronto a glimmer of hope going into next season. Bargnani averaged a season-best 20.3 points in March and looked comfortable in his first full month as Toronto's starting center. "He can create some mismatches," an NBA scout said. "Center is the only position he can realistically play in the NBA."
20 Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 19
This "Danny Granger for Most Improved Player" push is puzzling. Why? Because Granger was nearly a 20-point scorer last season and was so highly regarded that the Pacers handed him a $60 million contract in the offseason. What's more, I think coach Jim O'Brien agrees with me. "It's hard to say because he averaged 19.6 [points] last year," O'Brien said. "I think his movement, five points, is not a dramatic movement. I don't know what other people are doing, who would be up for that award."
21 New Jersey Nets
Last Week: 21
Equally puzzling are the questions about Lawrence Frank's job security. The Nets were picked by most publications (including Sports Illustrated) to finish at the bottom of the conference, but thanks to a revamped offense spearheaded by Devin Harris and the speedy development of rookie center Brook Lopez, the Nets have been able to hang in the playoff race all season. So we credit Larry Brown and Vinny Del Negro, but we crucify Frank for a similar season?
22 Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 20
In addition to a healthy roster, coach Scott Skiles has one wish for next season: a balanced schedule. Milwaukee had 20 of its first 33 games on the road this season and played a conference-high 51 games by the end of January. "Our schedule this year was really out of whack," Skiles said. "It was a schedule unlike any I've seen in my years in the league."
23 New York Knicks
Last Week: 23
Memo to Eddy Curry: If you plan on being part of the team next season, be prepared to spend a couple of weeks in Las Vegas this summer. The Knicks officially shut Curry down for the season last week, and coach Mike D'Antoni said he would like to see Curry get some time with the club's summer league entry in July. Curry hasn't committed to that yet but has said he will spend most of the offseason in New York working out with the coaching staff.
24 Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 24
Not a great year for vice president Chris Mullin. First he loses a power struggle with ownership and coach Don Nelson that will likely cost Mullin his job. Then he finds out he didn't get into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The silver lining for Mullin: Nelson didn't get in either.
25 Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 30
The impact of John Calipari's move from Memphis to Kentucky has trickled down to the Grizzlies, who rattled off four straight wins last week and are hoping to show their town that there is basketball life after Coach Cal. "I told [our team] that the fans were available again since Calipari left," Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. "Now that Cal is gone, this is a chance to show the fans that this is where they need to [come]."
26 Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 25
They are pulling out all the stops in trying to get Kevin Love consideration for Rookie of the Year. Last week, Minnesota's creative PR department, attempting to highlight Love's superb rebounding numbers (9.0 per game) this season, sent out bottles of "Kevin Love Glass Cleaner" to voting media members accompanied by a cheesy infomercial claiming Love will "clean the glass consistently." Not bad.
27 Washington Wizards
Last Week: 27
The front office is using the last few weeks of the season to evaluate whether this group, with Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood healthy and in the lineup, can contend next year. But Haywood has already decided it can. "For us, it comes down to health. It always has," Haywood said. "It's never been a question, 'Can we play?' It's, 'Can we play healthy?' If Gilbert Arenas is healthy, I think we can go out there and compete with anyone in the league. He's not even at full speed and he's getting double-digit assists every night."
28 Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 26
Is Shaun Livingston finally healthy? Livingston, who has bounced around since suffering a gruesome knee injury in 2007, has landed in Oklahoma City. And he looked pretty good in his Thunder debut, notching 10 points and three rebounds in a loss to the Blazers. "It's like coming into the league again as a rookie," Livingston said. "I've got to prove to myself I can still play."
29 Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 29
Sigh. Zach Randolph did it again. With the Clippers trailing by three late in the game against the Lakers on Sunday, Randolph, the team's best inside threat, floated out to the perimeter and tossed up an errant three-pointer. He made a similar ill-advised move in a loss to Cleveland last month. (The Clippers suspended Randolph for two games Monday after a DUI-related arrest following Sunday's loss.)
30 Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 28
Ladies and gentleman, your official front-runner in the Blake Griffin sweepstakes! After a crushing loss to Golden State on Sunday -- a game in which interim coach Kenny Natt said his team displayed "no energy and no effort" -- the Kings will close the season with games against the Lakers, Rockets, Spurs and Nuggets, with "winnable" games against the Timberwolves and Clippers mixed in. Sounds like a whole lot of Ping Pong balls to me.
Got a different view than Chris?
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