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Art Garcia

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Introspective Karl savoring Nuggets' wild playoff run

By Art Garcia,
Posted May 26 2009 4:56PM

DENVER -- Mood swings aren't just the domain of those immature Nuggets who pile up technicals at the most inopportune time. George Karl's seesawing disposition hit another low in the wee morning hours after his team surrendered the homecourt edge.

"I was depressed and sitting in the backyard thinking about a lightning bolt striking me," Karl revealed during another expansive chat on the eve of Game 4.

Don't be shocked if Karl fired up the grill after the 120-101 rout Monday night that evened the Western Conference finals at two games apiece with the Lakers. The best-of-7, now guaranteed to go at least six, resumes Wednesday in Los Angeles. (Watch a replay of Game 4 at noon Tuesday on NBA TV.)

Friends called a devastated Karl after Game 1, worried about his state of mind after catching his down-in-the-dumps act on TV. If a team takes the personality of its coach, don't condemn the Nuggets for riding the same roller coaster.

Just ask volatile sixth man J.R. Smith, who punctuated his 3-point barrage late with a jersey-popping display of excitement that could also incite.

"I would be upset if somebody is out there tearing us up and hitting 3s and showboating," Smith plainly stated. "But at the same time that's the way the Denver Nuggets play. We play with emotion and adrenaline. We've just got to make sure it's positive emotion."

The Nuggets aren't apologizing for their tact and neither is Karl for his openness. The gently balding and rounding 58-year-old is doing what most of us don't do in the moment. He's savoring it. Before dropping Game 3 at The Can, the drum-soloing skipper took his customary walk in Crestmoor Park.

Considering the frenzy this town has been put in by his team, signing a few autographs didn't come as a surprise. Here's the other end of the spectrum.

"When there are guys running off the soccer fields, maybe it's time for a hat and sunglasses," he admitted.

Good luck going incognito, George. His down time also includes strolls down Classic Rock Lane. He broke out the White Album for the first time in a couple of decades. "They're some crazy songs on there," he said.

Forgive him for not remembering the hodgepodge lineup on The Beatles' most sprawling effort. Karl has plenty on his mind these days. Like a rant on Twitter and Facebook eventually leading to the downfall of society. Asked about the impact of Chris Andersen -- another of the off-the-bench heroes in Game 4 -- Karl turns to the heavens again.

"I look at him and say thank you," he said of the Bird. "He's a gift from the gods. I never thought he could do what he's done."

Aren't most coaches at this time of year supposed to be sleeping on the couch in their office after watching film and not contemplating Mother Nature's intervention? This guy is channeling Phil Collins, catching a Springsteen concert in HD and recalling his ill-fated foray into rap. Karl once brought in a hip-hop professor for a crash course on the genre. Oh yeah, he's a fan of Shaggy.

Point guard/team savior hasn't played for anyone like Karl. And the coaching tally for Chauncey Billups is approaching double figures.

"He's pretty emotional," Billups granted. "It's cool that Coach wears his emotions on his sleeve, but at the same time, throughout the course of a game, you have to have your poker face."

Karl's tell remains an easy read in a sports world dominated by coaches who rarely say what's really on their mind and look down at their watch during mandatory media sessions. This ABA exile will chew the fat with the great unwashed (read: us notepad scribblers) long after everyone else has left the arena. On a game day. Phil Jackson couldn't leave shootaround fast enough Monday, spending all of 89 seconds with the press. He sparred with reporters after the game.

Jackson and Karl have their differences, in spite of their commonalities. Both were role players. Both cut their coaching teeth in the CBA. Both won a coach of the year award with the Albany Patroons. Both are among the all-time greats. Whereas the Zen Master is cerebral, calculated and owns nine titles, Karl knows the blueprint for the perfect Oreo Blizzard. Let it melt just a bit before you start.

The self-confessed former hippie once thought communism was a viable government and advocated the legalization of marijuana. On the Memorial Day morning of Game 4, a familiar calm for those who came of age in the 1960s fell over Karl.

"I don't know what herbs I'm taking," he quipped, "but I'm talking some herbs that make me feel pretty good."

Relax. No need to get a sample.

"They're all natural," Karl quickly clarified. "Phil has his incense. I have my herbs."

It's probably too late to move the series to Haight-Ashbury. Where it's being played is the dining room. The Lakers sit at the grownup's table, while the Nuggets are finally shedding their playoff bibs. Denver got out of the first round for the first time in the Melo Era.

Karl confessed the Nuggets tend to get too high after big wins. As much as Karl praises the team for the strides they've made -- "I'm flabbergasted at how fast we've grown up," he said -- their collective immaturity bubbled up after the Game 2 victory in L.A.

"I can't deny that maybe our shootaround was too loose rather than professional, but I also think there's a human nature factor in sport that's always fun to be a part of," the NBA's 10th all-time winningest coach said. "And we are five times better than last year, so are we disappointed that we're not six times better? Yeah, I am.

"I also have to respect, and I have tremendous respect, for what they've done, where they've come, how far they've come, how committed they are and how competitive they are."

It's time to guard against overreaction again. The Nuggets tied the series with a dehydrated Carmelo Anthony needing an IV at halftime and going nearly four full quarters, going back to Game 3, without a field goal. Thinking rim, Smith attacked early and soared late for 24 points. J.R., fighting his own dejection, had just 21 through three games. Billups matched Smith's output. Nene and Kenyon Martin went for double-doubles. Andersen had 14 boards and two blocks.

Overall, Denver held a mammoth 58-40 rebounding advantage. Nuggets reserves outscored their L.A. counterparts 42-24. And the Lakers were never close enough for closer supreme Kobe Bryant to make a difference down the stretch.

Regardless with what happens for the rest of the postseason, Karl understands the step made for the future. He's quick to praise the team for assertiveness, aggressiveness and professionalism. Even after three techs in Game 3 (and another trio in the fourth period Monday) threatened to tear down all that was built up.

"You've got to live with some of it," Billups said of his team's fire, "but at the same time you have to be smart."

Karl admitted he lost his way for about 2 1/2 years (AI's stint) and abandoned his defensive principles. He doesn't want his players to lose their individuality and youthful spirit. The Nuggets can't win without that edge.

"That's just how we are," Billups said. "That's how we function as a unit."

The Nuggets expect to contend going forward. Should the Nuggets fall to the defending West champs or somehow reach the first Finals in franchise history, the groundwork appears in place.

"Win, lose or whatever, there's still a process to playing the right way and playing a competitive way," Karl said. "We're not going to jump off a bridge if we lose."

Lightning would do the trick.

If you have a question or comment for Art Garcia, send him an email.

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