By Art Garcia, NBA.com
Posted May 14 2009 3:02PM
DENVER -- The ingredients have always been there. The big wins have finally started to follow.
"It's a team now," Kenyon Martin said after the Nuggets wrapped up their first trip to the Western Conference finals in 24 years. "We had talented players before. It's a team now."
The Nuggets are the best team in the West right now. That's the statement they made after finishing off their second consecutive series near-sweep Wednesday night, exploding past the Mavericks 124-110 to close out the conference semifinals in five games.
Rarely challenged during these Playoffs, Denver continues to hit a new high with each passing round and now awaits the outcome of Lakers-Rockets. Los Angeles leads that series 3-2 with a closeout possibility Thursday night in Houston.
The Lakers' relative struggles against the depleted Rockets stands in stark contrast to the fury in which the Nuggets are advancing. The Mavericks, just as the Hornets before them, were overmatched from the start of the series.
"These guys are a legitimate championship-caliber team," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said at the end of a long day that began as a pallbearer for Chuck Daly in Florida. "They have a real shot."
The Nuggets had the matching superstar (Carmelo Anthony to Dirk Nowitzki), the better veteran point guard (Chauncey Billups to Jason Kidd), the more productive sixth man (J.R. Smith to Jason Terry), a deeper bench and a meaner streak. Eight wins in nine games over Dallas, counting the regular season, doesn't have to be dissected too closely.
The basketball world, slow in some circles to come around, is witness to the berth of a true title contender. After five long years, Melo has finally begun to write the first few pages of his postseason legacy. Billups, a fellow All-NBA third teamer with Anthony, just keeps adding chapters to his.
In the conference finals for the seventh straight year, Billups stepped right in to quarterback an undisciplined but talented group that previously tantalized and frustrated coach George Karl. Billups forged his legend as Mr. Big Shot in Detroit, but he's also a hometown kid who understands where this franchise has been. Billups has dedicated this playoff run to Nuggets, past and present.
"All the guys who have been here and who haven't been able to get out of the first round and carried that weight on their shoulders all season, every season and get to the Playoffs and not get it done," Billups said. "It's for all those guys. It's for the city, for the fans."
They all have to be astounded by the domination. Denver has outscored its two playoff opponents by 160 points in 10 games. The Nuggets have shot at least 50 percent seven times, with the 58.5 percent registered in Game 5 the franchise's highest postseason mark in 15 years. The 124 points in the clincher was the most during this run.
"Advancing to the Western Conference Finals is real," Karl said. "I have a feeling we are not going to be messed up by the next round. We are going to make it until they beat us. We are good enough to make some noise."
Not that the Mavericks didn't put up a fight, especially from their heavy-hearted leader who's often blamed for the playoff failures of the last three seasons. The turmoil of Nowitzki's personal life didn't spill over to his game -- he averaged 34.4 points in the series and tallied four double-doubles.
Less than two weeks after exposing the Spurs' lack of able bodies, the Nuggets did the same to Dallas. Denver Public Enemy No. 1, Mark Cuban, and his brain trust now must plot their next move. Carlisle believes the franchise is moving in the right direction and stressed the importance of bringing back the nucleus, including Kidd.
The 36-year-old free agent plans to test the market and said his preference is to go to a team that can win it all. Though the Lakers and Cavaliers are the logical candidates, the prevailing feeling in the Dallas front office is Kidd is just looking to drive up his price before returning to the franchise that drafted him.
"He's got a lot a lot of options," Nowitzki said. "A lot of good teams, I guess, are looking at him. We'd love to have him back."
Unlike the situation south of Dallas, where a healthy Manu Ginobili elevates San Antonio back to contender status, prying the Mavericks' window back open seems unlikely. Winning one series over a three-year span doesn't set up a franchise for a championship run.
For all the Mavericks may need, including more shooting and more athleticism in the post, Terry said the missing piece in this series had nothing to do with the roster. "We're missing a win in Game 3," he deadpanned.
Nowitzki also referred to that heartbreaking 106-105 loss, which included an official's missed call before Melo's buzzer-beater, as the "killer" blow to Dallas' chances. In reality, the Mavericks' margin of error was too small and the Nuggets' advantages too great.
Dallas was a nice postseason footnote -- a team that peaked after an indifferent start and got the best first-round matchup possible for a lower seed. Denver is a mile higher on the food chain, and just four wins from the NBA Finals.
"It's not over yet," Martin said. "We've got eight more wins we're trying to get. It gets harder. Each game, each round, each series gets harder."
Karl admitted the scouting is tilting the Lakers' way, which makes sense considering Kobe Bryant's crew leads the series and they are the No. 1 seed. Should the Rockets pull off another stunner and send it to a Game 7, the Nuggets have even more time to rest and study up.
"We're looking forward to the challenge, whether it's the Lakers or Houston," said Anthony, the first Denver player to have four 30-point games during a single postseason since Alex English in '86.
Whichever team comes out of the other semifinal better be ready to face the scariest team the West has to offer. And possibly the best.
"I'm just worried about us, to be honest," Martin said. "I'm just worried about us getting better each and every single day. At this time of the year, everybody is playing well. You can't say you're better than this team or that team.
"The only thing you can control is if you're getting better."
If you have a question or comment for Art Garcia, send him an email.
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