Nuggets playing worst at the worst time

By John Hollinger

SALT LAKE CITY – When you step back, the Denver Nuggets have a lot to appreciate about their 2009-10 campaign. They won a second straight division title, won 53 games after taking 54 last season, and again made the short list of Western Conference contenders when the playoffs began.

The key difference? A year ago they were playing their best basketball as the playoffs rolled around. This season, they’re playing their worst. Tonight the Nuggets’ recent troubles in the departments of defense, passing and general comportment again rose up to strike them in a 117-106 defeat to Utah that puts them on the brink of elimination. The Jazz lead the best-of-seven series 3-1 heading into Wednesday’s Game 5 in Denver, and historically only eight of the 189 teams that have been in the Nuggets’ position advanced to the next round.

Denver surrendered 53.2% shooting to Utah and sent them to the line 42 times, while offensively the Nuggets suffered from too much one-on-one and posted only 13 assists – coming on the heels of a 12-assist performance in Game 3.

As for comportment, Chris Andersen and Carmelo Anthony argued on the bench after Andersen launched an ill-advised 20-footer in the second quarter, and the Nuggets committed a foolish delay-of-game violation for a technical foul with three minutes left in a nine-point game.

The loss of coach George Karl to cancer was an especially cruel blow for the Nuggets, because the Nuggets desperately need a strong ringleader to orchestrate the personalities in their locker room. “We don’t have Tim Duncan here,” as one source noted.

One look at the team’s performance shows Karl’s impact: The Nuggets are 13-12 with interim coach Adrian Dantley on the sideline after going 41-20 under Karl, and are 8-10 since Karl last coached in a Mar. 16 win over Washington.

This isn’t a reflection on Dantley. As I’ve mentioned before, he's in an impossible position as what is effectively a long-term substitute teacher trying to corral his strong-willed troops. There’s a reason it’s been 30 years since a team won a division title with an interim coach – it’s awfully tough to maintain command when the players know you’re a short-timer.

One note, however, since Dantley will likely take heat for it this morning: he opted not to intentionally foul Kyrylo Fesenko late in the game, and I believe that was the right call. First, the team only had one player (Ty Lawson) in position to give fouls because of all their foul trouble.

Second, while Fesenko is a 40.2% career shooter in the NBA, that’s only in 82 attempts. In a much larger 204 free-throw sample in the D-League, he’s made 62.4%. Add them up and he’s at 55.9% in North America, which isn’t quite bad enough to make this tactic automatic.

“We talked about it on the sidelines,” said Dantley, “but we decided not to do it.”

Nonetheless, Denver’s other warts shined through for the third straight game. Start with favorite Karl whipping boy J.R. Smith, who again looked lost at sea minus George's barbs. He is now 15-of-44 on the series despite being guarded most of that time by the eminently beatable Kyle Korver.

Up front, forward Kenyon Martin is competing gamely on a bad knee but has been a shadow of himself, with his 14 points tonight putting him in double figures for only the second time in seven games since returning.

Meanwhile, Nene is giving them n-nothing, vanishing from sight in the two games in Utah despite a seemingly one-sided match-up in athleticism against Utah’s Kyrylo Fesenko. His advantage was so clear, in fact, that Anthony seemed bewildered about it afterward.

“Fesenko?” said Anthony. “Don’t get me wrong. He is playing extremely well. He’s playing with a lot of confidence, but … Fesenko?

Perhaps worst of all, floor general Chauncey Billups is so busy managing the asylum that his numbers have tanked dramatically ever since Karl left the sideline. Billups shot 38.2% in March and 37.6% in April, and his trademark pull-up 3 has deserted him. Since March 1, he’s only shooting 28.6% from downtown. Tonight he fouled out in 33 minutes with a modest 14 points.

As a result, the Nuggets are left with a lengthy to-do list and the likelihood that at some point in the next six days their season will end. Despite two largely similar seasons, this time around we’re headed for a wildly different conclusion.