Nuggets are one and done again |

Nuggets are one and done again

Arnie Stapleton
AP Sports Writer
Denver Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony looks on from the sidelines after fouling out against the Los Angeles Lakers during the fourth quarter in Game 4 of a first-round NBA playoff basketball series Monday, April 28, 2008, in Denver. The Lakers beat the Nuggets 107-101 to sweep the series. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

DENVER ” Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant agreed on what separated their All-Star studded teams in their lopsided first-round playoff series: teamwork.

“Talent-wise, I don’t think they’re better than us. Team-wise, I think they’re better than us,” Anthony said of the apparent gap during the Lakers’ impressive sweep of the bedraggled Nuggets.

The Lakers are moving on after turning the Nuggets from a team that was giddy just to reach the postseason in the power-packed Western Conference into a gloomy bunch that trudged off the court Monday night as the first 50-win team in NBA history to get shut out in the playoffs.

“They have a lot of talent,” Bryant said. “But a lot of times it’s not necessarily the amount of talent you have on a team but it’s the chemistry within that talent and how well you play together. I’m very fortunate to be on a team where everybody just meshes. We all work well with one another.”

Like too many bullies on a playground, the Nuggets, on the other hand, don’t play well together.

They feature two superstars in ‘Melo and Allen Iverson, who started alongside each other in the All-Star Game, plus another player who probably should have in Marcus Camby, the league’s premiere rebounder.

Kenyon Martin resurrected his career after two knee surgeries, J.R. Smith’s game and maturity took giant leaps in 2007-08 and Anthony Carter started 67 times after playing just two games last year.

Linas Kleiza and Eduardo Najera added versatility to their games, giving the Nuggets one of the best benches in basketball even with Nene missing most of the season with testicular cancer and various injuries.

The Nuggets won 50 games for the first time in 20 years, tallying just seven fewer wins than the top-seeded Lakers. Yet, Denver lost to the Lakers by an average of 13 points.

Coach George Karl, whose job is safe according to Mark Warkentien, the team’s vice president of basketball operations, accepted that the Nuggets were never going to play defense for 48 minutes or cut to the basket whenever ‘Melo or A.I. had the ball. He just hoped the explosiveness that allowed them to slice into deficits so often during the season would show up at the right time in the playoffs.

It didn’t.

And so the Nuggets were bounced out of the first round for the fifth-straight season. Only this time, they didn’t even win their customary one game before getting a jump on their summer vacation.

With a lot of immovable parts with hefty contracts that make up one of the highest payrolls in the NBA at over $80 million, the Nuggets’ options are limited as they search for a solution to their one-and-done rut.

“I definitely think our team has made a big step forward this season. But I think the Western Conference is amazing” and only going to get better next year, Karl said.

So, how are the Nuggets going to keep pace, and actually advance instead of continuing to serve as first-round fodder?

The solution seems so simple: Play as hard in front of your basket as you do in front of your opponent’s.

“If we get some type of defense into our game, we’ll be right there,” Iverson said. “We’re not that far away. … It has to be the No. 1 focus going into next year, to be able to get stops, to focus everything on defense because we know we can score.”

Never known for his defense, Iverson said he’s willing to buckle down.

“All it is is looking yourself in the mirror and figuring out what you can do to make the team better,” he said. “Whatever I have to do to make our team better, I’ll do.”

Will ‘Melo do the same?

The knock on Anthony, who is now 4-20 in the playoffs, has always been that he’s unwilling to get dirty on defense, so his teammates don’t bother, either.

Against the Lakers, Anthony’s offense and leadership also was lacking at times.

After scoring 30 points in Game 1, he averaged just 20 points on 33 percent shooting while dishing out just two assists per game. Following his 5-for-22 performance in Game 3 that included an amazing array of missed layups, Anthony accused his team and coaches of quitting.

Next month, Anthony has a court date for his recent DUI charge, another disturbing moment for the Nuggets and the face of the franchise.

Karl often says that when they feel like it, the Nuggets can play great basketball, complete with a stifling defense that ignites their frenetic offense. In those rare moments, they’re a fun team to coach and an enjoyable team to watch.

Despite that happening too infrequently this season, Karl said he’ll take away many positives.

There was Martin resurrecting his career, Nene conquering cancer, Carter’s comeback.

“I’m convinced that we had a step-forward year,” Karl said. “We’re better than we were last year. We’re tougher than we were last year.”

The Nuggets just need to figure out how to get a first-round opponent they can beat, Karl said.

“It doesn’t take much more than that. I’ve been with teams that can snowball a confidence, an energy.”

Instead of the annual anguish and antagonism.

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