By Dave McMenamin, NBA.com
Posted May 24 2009 2:08AM
DENVER -- For 16 straight games, the Nuggets crushed their opposition at Pepsi Center like aluminum cans, winning by an average margin of 15.2 points while scoring a ridiculous 115.5 points.
They beat them in every facet of the game -- energy, rebounding, hustle, heart, execution -- you name it. In its 103-97 loss to Los Angeles on Saturday, Denver beat itself.
The Lakers are supposed to be the team with the Jekyll and Hyde complex, but in Game 3 it was the Nuggets that had a horrible relapse back to the days when they were just a collection of individual agendas.
After the game, Denver coach George Karl lamented the lack of "teamness" displayed by his squad, making up a word rather than making up excuses for a lackluster performance.
"I think emotionally it was a game that we weren't playing very well offensively," Karl said. "It seems like our offense frustrates us more than our defense."
The old Nuggets were all about offense, with Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony taking pride in scoring 30 instead of grinding out possessions on defense and getting dirty.
This is a completely different Denver squad than the one that was swept out of the first round by L.A. last year. That team self destructed, amassing nine technical fouls over the course of four games.
That team relied on its talent more than its desire.
That team was so mentally draining that Karl said before the conference finals began, "the way we played for two years we could not win or I could not coach it anymore that way."
But doesn't that sound like the team we saw with "Nuggets" across its chest on Saturday all over again?
Denver's fans hadn't hosted a Western Conference finals game since 1985 and was practically begging for a reason to erupt in Game 3, but whenever the momentum started rolling in their team's favor, the guys in white and powder blue mucked it up.
The Nuggets picked up three technical fouls on Saturday, each time ruining a Denver momentum swing. First there was Linas Kleiza who nullified a dunk before halftime to push the Nuggets' lead to eight -- their largest of the game -- with a technical foul for shoving Pau Gasol that cut the Lakers' deficit to just four at halftime.
Then there was Anthony Carter who got T'd up immediately following a 3-pointer by J.R. Smith in the third quarter, in essence turning Smith's trey into a two.
The most egregious of all was Smith, who sullied the end of the third quarter by screaming in Sasha Vujacic's face after hitting another triple to push the lead back to eight.
Instead of the crowd riding the shot through the timeout in between quarters, all you could see on the fans faces were looks of unbelievable disgust. L.A. took the freebie to start the fourth and ran with it, going on a 10-1 run to grab the lead for the first time since the first quarter.
"It is [tough]," said Chauncey Billups, who saw his fair share of self-inflicted meltdowns teaming with Rasheed Wallace in Detroit for more than four seasons. "Especially the kind of techs that we had. Those become big plays; those become huge plays at the end of the game. You already know that most times it's going to be a three-, four-, two-, three-, four-point game, five-point game every game. So those becomes huge plays, just emotional ... We gotta probably do a little better job controlling that."
Maybe all the hotheadedness surging through the team was the reason that Kenyon Martin made the same mistake with 36.5 seconds left in Game 3 that Anthony Carter made with 30.5 seconds to go in Game 1, throwing away an inbound pass to Trevor Ariza in Denver's end with his team down by a bucket.
"It was kind of déjà vu of Game 1," Anthony said.
And it was kind of déjà vu of the Nuggets of old, the team that would run and gun and then shoot itself in the foot.
NBA.com's Dave McMenamin will be covering the Western Conference finals between the Lakers and Nuggets. If you have a question or comment for him, send him an e-mail. You can also follow him on Twitter.
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