Posted by Kevin Arnovitz
LOS ANGELES -- Half an hour after the Denver Nuggets landed at LAX around noon, they were on the Lakers' home floor at Staples Center in their street clothes. While Nene, wearing slides, took some shots, Carmelo Anthony reminded reporters that the Nuggets had things in proper perspective.
"We're confident, but not cocky," Anthony said. Then, doing his best Aaron Brooks imitation, Anthony added, "We're just excited about being here."
Across the court, George Karl sat on the scorer's table, dangling his legs, echoing a similar sentiment. "There's a humility to who we are," Nuggets head coach George Karl said. "There's a quiet happiness, not an obnoxious happiness or an arrogant happiness with our success."
Self-deprecation seems to be the rhetorical weapon of choice for Lakers opponents.
Karl held court for quite a while, and one of the themes he returned to repeatedly is that while most teams have to win before they can arrive, this Nuggets team had to arrive before they could win.
According to Karl, the transformation was twofold. The first change was a shift back to defense as the focus of Karl's coaching, as it had been in Seattle. "I spent two and a half years on a sabbatical trying to learn a different way and I was wrong," Karl said. "I lost my direction, and players now know that I enjoy the defensive end of the court more than I do the offensive end of the court."
In truth, the Nuggets' defense was respectable last season (10th in the NBA in defensive efficiency per 100 possessions), but they bumped that ranking up to 8th in 2008-09, and have allowed a stingy 101.3 points/100 possessions in their 10 postseason games.
Karl cited the team's behavior away from the arena as the other big conversion. "We were pushing the limits of off-court professionalism," Karl said. "We have moved to a very good place in our culture."
Karl enumerated the factors for that culture shift -- the maturation of certain players and the arrival of others, such as Chauncey Billups.
"Chauncey came in and said, 'This is the way it has to be. This is the only way you can be successful,'" Karl said. " A lot of the things Chauncey says in the locker room are things I've been saying for two or three years that they've gotten tired of listening to. All the sudden they're saying, 'This guys been to the conference finals seven years in a row. Hmmm.'"
After the Nuggets last loss in Los Angeles -- a 116-102 drubbing on April 9 -- Nuggets forward Nene said, "It's frustrating. They played their game and we didn't play our game."
The Nuggets might lose again at Staples Center Tuesday night, but it probably won't be because they didn't play their game.
"If someone beats us, that's what they'll write," Karl said, "They beat us."