Anxious to take the spotlight off himself and put it back on his Denver Nuggets head coach George Karl was happy to finally grab his 1,000th career coaching victory last Friday with a 123-116 road win over the Toronto Raptors. The accomplishment put him into elite company with only six other coaches in the history of the game able to accomplish the feat. For Karl though, it’s more about what it can do for the team than for the man.
“A lot of times during an NBA season the coach and the players aren’t really connected, their fighting a lot,” said Karl. “This was a moment, not only on the court but in the locker room afterward. It was a great connection. It feels good and it’ll feel good for the next couple days and then we can get on to improving our NBA record and not worrying about George Karl.”
Karl talked on about the coach’s life and the sacrifices of others, not himself, that got him to this point. He acknowledged his North Carolina basketball roots too after missing a chance the get 1000 in Charlotte against the Bobcats and fellow NC alum Larry Brown (a member of the 1000 club himself) earlier in the week. Still, there was nothing less poetic, only a brief reflection.
“My intimate family is the one that takes the most hits for (me) being a coach,” said Karl. “Without their love and support and forgiveness I would have never gotten to this point.
Karl’s road into the history books has been rocky in recent years with the bench boss battling and beating cancer twice. This season he has also had to deal with the distraction of the Carmelo Anthony saga with the All-Star forward looking for a way out of Denver for a more star-studded cast and brighter lights of a bigger city. Anthony wasn’t in uniform for the Nuggets versus the Raptors but he was in the Air Canada Centre and was appreciative of Karl’s journey.
“I am a part of it,” said Anthony who was sidelined with right knee tendinitis. “I wasn’t out there on the court actually in the game but I’m still a part of it.
“He got his 900th here too, man. 100 wins later and we’re still here together, he’s still here and I’m happy for him.”
It wasn’t the prettiest win of Karl’s storied coaching career with both teams shunning defence in favour of a good old fashioned shooting spree. The Nuggets won out behind an explosive third quarter that opened up a 19-point lead, providing enough of a cushion to withstand a fourth quarter Raptors comeback that fell short. Perhaps just as important the historical win was that it ended the Nuggets two-game losing blip, a nip-it-in-the-bud win oh-so important in the cutthroat western conference picture.
“You can’t have a long losing streak in this league,” said reserve guard Ty Lawson. “Especially in the west (where) teams are like 9 or 8 games over .500. You gotta get a win where you can get it. If you don’t you’ll find yourself at the bottom or out of the playoffs.”
With a blast of injuries to the front court stalking the team as well (both Kenyon Martin and Chris Anderson have been out all season) Karl directed the team to bond together under the occasion just as they did after the final buzzer sounded on his landmark win.
They players recognize the opportunity as well in this dangerous time. Unlike the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors who lost LeBron James and Chris Bosh this past offseason, the Nuggets have carried the drama of a brooding superstar into the season. It hangs as a major distraction though they have weathered through on the basketball court to remain as one of the western conference’s best threats. Still, if Anthony is dealt midseason as expected the team could go from contender to pretender in a heartbeat. That any-given-moment reality is a tough pill and the Karl accomplishment can serve as one of many things to keep the group tight knit and focussed on the long season. After all, they did get Karl his 1000th with Anthony sidelined.
“It brings you together,” said veteran Chauncey Billups. “I’m hoping that we can continue to have that togetherness. We’ll always be connected, we’ll always have that bond no matter what happens. I’m really just hoping we can continue to build on that.”
Karl won his 900th in Toronto two seasons ago and recalled the story of drinking a post game celebration beer following that stepping stone. Back then, he said, it tasted like champagne. After years of cancer treatments he wasn’t sure how much he’d enjoy one following his most recent triumph.
“I haven’t had a beer in a long time,” Karl said. “I’m a beer guy but it hasn’t tasted very good with my taste buds.
“It hasn’t since I’ve had my radiation.”
Hopefully for Karl it still tasted like the good stuff.
No Carmelo Anthony. No Jose Calderon. No defence? That was the scene early at the Air Canada Centre as both the Denver Nuggets and Toronto Raptors got off to a furious offensive battle in their showdown at the Air Canada Centre on Friday night. The 123-116 Nuggets win snapped their two-game slump and sent the Raptors back to the drawing board to try to make sense – and make right – another coming out of the half. With all the talk surrounding Nuggets head coach George Karl’s chance for 1,000th win before the game the Nuggets used the third quarter to create enough of a cushion to deliver the feat after a spirited Raptors run late in the game.
“Never worry until it’s under four,” joked Karl following the triumph. “Thats my code, that’s my creed.”
“The NBA gives away leads way too much and why it happens I have no idea. We’re infamous for it.”
The Nuggets hit their first six shot attempts of the game and the Raptors allowed the tandem of starting centre Nene and point guard Chauncy Billups to combine for 25 points in the quarter contributing big to the team’s 75% shooting. Despite scoring eight points off of six early Nuggets turnovers in the frame the home side still trailed the visitors 39-33 at the first break.
“We needed more of a directive personality,” continued Karl. “Chauncey and Nene got that option and I thought they did a great job in the first quarter, (but) other guys had good games. Al (Harrington) of course had a great game for us. Gary Forbes had a great third quarter for us that was really important. Without ‘Melo, if you told me we were going to score 123 I would have taken that so that’s kind of shocking that we scored that many points.”
The hot offence for both teams continued into the second stanza with the Nuggets hitting 4 of 8 shots to the Raptors 8 of 12 shooting in the first half of the quarter to make it 51-51 at the 7:31 mark. The Nuggets were buoyed by deadly three-point shooting, going 10 for 25 from beyond the arc on the night led by Al Harrington’s 6 of 11 mark from long-range, which included 3 of 5 from there in the second quarter. Meanwhile the Raptors were spurred by the play of former Nuggets player Linas Kleiza, who rocked the second frame with 17 points of his own by hitting 3 of 3 three-point shots in the Q. Karl warned during his pre-game chat that Kleiza and fellow former Nugget Sonny Weems might look to make a statement against their former club and he was right. With Weems contributing 21 points, seven rebounds and four assists and Kleiza lighting it up from downtown the Raptors’ offence continued its potency against a normally defensively-charged Nuggets squad. Kleiza had 19 points and eight rebounds in the first half and finished the game with 26 points and 12 rebounds but the Raptors still trailed 74-65 at the break.
The second half started out at a decidedly slower pace for the Raptors who allowed the Nuggets to stretch their nine-point halftime lead to 15 behind 5 of 10 shooting from the floor in the first five minutes. After a quick timeout Toronto scored and followed it with two quick stops but couldn’t turn it into a run. Instead the Nuggets took it the other way with a 6-2 push that prompted Raptors head coach Jay Triano to punch another timeout out of the game clock as the Nuggets’ lead swelled to 19. Once again it was Billups leading the way for the Nuggets, orchestrating the attack with three assists to compliment rookie Gary Forbes’ 13-point contribution in the frame.
Weems chalked up the lapse to a rattled team defence.
“We were unable to keep their guys in front of us and it resulted in a loss,” said Weems following the game. “They are a very good team, very athletic tea and they have mismnatches at every position. They did a great job of executing tonight.”
The Raptors on the other hand, went cold from the field until reserve Leandro Barbosa (22 points) began to chip away with two straight buckets in the last three minutes of the quarter to bring back some life to his fading squad.
Still despite the mounting Nuggets turnovers – they finished with 22 on the night – the Raptors could not take serious advantage though they did cut the lead to 12, putting them within striking distance fin time for the start of the fourth quarter.
In the fourth, while the Raptors continued to show energy, they could not close the gap. A ridiculous step back three-pointer from Harrington crushed a little more hope and Amir Johnson’s foul trouble interrupted the defence in key moments. When he returned at the 5:58 mark and his team down by 10 the damage was done. A telling sequence came later in the quarter when Weems hit a three to cut Denver’s lead to seven and glared at the Nuggets bench on his way back up the court. Too bad Nuggs reserve J.R. Smith was responding with a three -pointer of his own during the stare down, answering Weems before he even knew what happened.
Then came the crunch time where Bargnani, the emerging star of this Raptors team, hit a clutch three pointer to trim the Nuggets lead to four with 46.9 seconds to play. Later, a 20-second Raptors timeout with 19.5 left on the game clock failed to generate anything on the court and with Billups hitting 3 of 4 free throws down the stretch the game was sealed. The loss was the fourth in a row for the Raptors who were too spent to get over the hump. Karl got his 1,000th win in the same building he copped his 900th two seasons ago. The Raptors, as they did back then, were left to lick their wounds.
“Whenever I am shooting the ball well I think I am pretty tough to guard,” said Harrington, who finished with 31 points and 6 rebounds. “I hit two or three threes early and they had to try to get to me when i had the ball.
“All of us, everybody had to pull their weight a little bit more tonight. We were able to get the win and we needed it.”
It has been a couple of seasons since SWAY last caught up with Chris Anderson. Back then he was fresh off the boat from a two year suspension from the NBA on a drug rap. Not much was disclosed; he had gone quietly into the night. And then he had re-emerged, a washout in many people’s eyes and getting burn in five games with the New Orleans Hornets at the end of the 2007-08 season. He was rusty, but he looked good though his stint with the Hornets – the team he was under contract with at the time of his suspension – was short. He caught on the next season with the Denver Nuggets – the scene of his first pro stop and the only other NBA team he had played for. It wasn’t long before Anderson had total recall and so did the fans.
“That’s what they got me for,” Anderson told SWAY Sports. “To be energetic and play defense. That’s what I love to do, I love to block shots. I alter shots.”
Over the past two seasons in Denver Anderson has been one of the most efficient reserves in the league and up until this season, one of the best bargains. Defensively and on the glass he is a dizzying ball of energy stretched across a 6-10 frame. Offensively he plays it close, keeping his percentages high with sound positioning, put-backs and dunks. Since returning to the NBA Anderson has averaged 6.3 rebounds, 6.2 points and over two blocks per game. Last season he registered a career-high 2.5 blocks – second only to Dwight Howard in far less minutes – over 71 games and shot 54 percent from the field. For that successful return the Nuggets handed him a five-year contract that could top out at $26M with incentives. It cemented him as part of a Denver core that has bullied its way to a top three standing in the western conference for most of this season. Currently, Anderson sits third overall in blocks per 48 minutes for his 1.8 average in nearly 23 minutes of play a night, another career-high. His rebounding (6.4) and point totals (6.1) have remained virtually the same from last season while his shooting percentage actually rose to over 56 percent. Despite the improvements to other parts of his game Anderson’s specialty remains attacking the shot, which is the motor to his game.
“Blocking a shot and dunking on people… it’s the same all around this room,” said Anderson eying his teammates. “If somebody else dunks on somebody it’s definitely going to put a little spark into it. That’s all you need is that little spark. Fire it up and next thing you know you’re playing at a high level.”
Call it the world according to the “Birdman”, Anderson’s well-earned moniker. His personality also transfers to off-court business and despite his rocky past he figures comfortably in the organization’s marketing efforts. His tatted torso is now celebrated and his on court antics are no longer deemed a distraction. His true colors are shining. His role is about to expand some too, with power forward Kenyon Martin sidelined by injury heading into the playoffs. If the Nuggets plan on returning to the conference final Anderson will have to play a significant part. He’s no savior but he will be depended on more than he has been at any other time in his career… the role of a lifetime. The Nuggets will also be without head coach George Karl as he battles cancer, making for some serious internal adjustments.
“We miss him,” said Anderson. “But it’s up to us to be professionals and come out and dig ourselves out of the hole we’re in”
The hole he refers to had its ground first broke when Karl stepped away from the game for treatment. The Nuggets haven’t gotten as many stops in recent games as they have for most of the season and without Martin the problem has been magnified. The race for second seed in the western conference has tightened.
“That just falls on us,” continues Anderson. “We’re not protecting the basket as well as we should be. It’s a matter of trusting each other and getting out there and playing as a unit.”
Assistant coach Adrian Dantley has done serviceable job in Karl’s absence but a recent three-game slip raised flags with the Nuggets, especially with Dallas and Utah surging. Along with center Nene, Anderson knows he is responsible for closing the gaps and with that comes a closer study of his approach. He is also aware of the immediate dividends his style of play pays out when he’s at his best.
“When I’m in there they don’t really drive to the basket anyway,” explained Anderson. “They like to pull up jumpers and just throw some shit up. But sometimes I take it out of context and I’ll try to go block shots I don’t even have any business trying to block. That right there puts us in a bad situation because now we don’t have two bigs rebounding. It gives the (other) team an opportunity to get an offensive board. It’s just a matter of being a smart defender and knowing when to go and not to go.”
In many ways Anderson’s road back to NBA stardom has been mirrored by the ascension of the Nuggets to legitimate contender. Led by a young superstar in Carmelo Anthony and a grizzled veteran and former champ in Chauncey Billups the team seems poised to make a serious run despite the absence of Karl and Martin, their two most vocal citizens. Anderson knows all about seizing the moment and making the most out of each chance. He has faced far worse odds and cleared much higher hurdles and after reaching the conference final last season Anderson also knows that the push starts now.
“That’s just it,” Anderson pinpoints. “We’ve got to turn it up right now. If we try to play like a playoff team at the end of the season it’s going to be tough.”