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Enigmatic Nuggets finally at full strength

ARNIE STAPLETON
AP Sports Writer

DENVER – The Denver Nuggets keep losing to the bad teams and whipping the good ones.

Coach George Karl is stumped over his inability to find the right mix when one of his front-line starters such as Chauncey Billups, Kenyon Martin or Carmelo Anthony is wearing a suit on the sideline next to him.

He isn’t too worried, though – and here’s why: Denver is 22-5 when Billups, Martin, Anthony and Nene all play.

And with rookie sensation Ty Lawson back from an ankle injury that cost him four games, the Nuggets are finally at full strength with Anthony (knee), Billups (groin) and Martin (finger) all healthy again.

Karl put Lawson and Billups on the court together Sunday night in Denver’s 119-112 win over Utah, and the two point guards steadied a sometimes erratic offense while opening up opportunities for Anthony (37 points) and Nene (18) down low.

With this new look and fewer players in the training room, the Nuggets look primed for the kind of second-half surge Karl expects they’ll need to establish some separation in the tight Northwest Division and ever-competitive Western Conference.

“They are a real good team,” Utah forward Kyle Korver said. “Even when they are banged up, they have a lot of guys. Talent-wise, they are one of the two or three best teams in the West.”

After Denver manhandled Dwight Howard and Orlando by 18 points last week, Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said the Nuggets’ record was deceptive because they’re hammering some good teams on the home court and that when they come ready and healthy, they’re a force like few other teams in the NBA.

“I hope he’s right,” Karl said. “There’s a lot of things that say we’re in a good place. Statistics, plus-minus, a lot of stuff says we’re OK. But we need a surge.”

The Nuggets are 26-14 overall. After beating Utah for the third time Sunday night, they stood 15-6 against teams with winning records but just 11-8 against teams .500 or worse.

“When we’ve had one of our big guys out, it seems like against some of the weaker teams we haven’t filled in the hole very well, and I think some of that falls on me,” Karl said. “My history’s been pretty good at that. This year, I don’t know why, I just haven’t been able to get the motivation or the demand of intensity upped to overcome.”

The Nuggets have had no problem with their intensity against the likes of the Lakers, Spurs, Cavaliers, Magic and Jazz – whom they beat in the season series for the first time in seven years.

It’s the stupefying losses to the Kings (twice), 76ers, Pistons, Bucks, Clippers and Timberwolves that have the Nuggets scrambling to separate themselves from the pack.

Would Karl rather beat the bad teams and struggle against the good ones?

“Well, I think in general, you win 70 percent against the bad teams and you split against the good teams, you’ll come out at 60 percent, which is usually a 50-win season,” Karl said.

The Nuggets want more than that. They’re still smarting over their two botched inbounds passes that cost them wins over the Lakers in the Western Conference finals last summer.

While everyone around them brought in big-name free agents, they sat steady, adding Lawson through the draft and filling in holes with the likes of Arron Afflalo and Joey Graham.

Lawson could be the wild card. The speedy point guard from North Carolina has adjusted to the NBA faster than the Nuggets expected with top-notch defense and superb floor presence, on or off the ball.

“He is a speedster,” Korver said. “He gets out and he goes, attacks the basket and he is surrounded by shooters and scorers. And you pair him with Chauncey, he makes them more dangerous. And then you have to be concerned about Carmelo from the outside.”

Lawson had missed four games since spraining his left ankle against Golden State on Jan. 5, and in his absence, the Nuggets lost some of the fluidity in their offense, often having trouble with pace and penetration that’s so crucial to their philosophies.

Karl also missed Lawson’s disruptive defense and said he looks forward to putting him on the court with Billups more often during the last half of the season.

“(Lawson) has given them a different dynamic because he is a different point guard than Chauncey,” Utah guard Deron Williams said. “You know they are going to push tempo a lot more. He is one of the fastest guys in the league and he knocks you with the ball in his hands. He puts a lot of pressure on your defense.”

And he might just be the one who helps the Nuggets maintain their intensity no matter the opponent’s record.


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