Posted Mar 30 2010 12:50PM
DALLAS -- Some faces had changed and others were missing Monday night, but the magnitude of the evening seemed appropriate for what was on the line in Big D.
"This was a big game," Denver's ever-steady quarterback Chauncey Billups said after the Mavericks ran away with a 109-93 victory in the last regular-season meeting between last year's Western Conference semifinalists.
The Nuggets have to focus on the "was" aspect, especially now that their horrific five-game road trip is history. Denver returns home tired, and that fatigue is of every imaginable kind. A week spent on the East coast that gave way to a Texas finish is draining enough. Try it without your coach and your best defender.
Asked if the sum of it all has taken a toll within the locker room, one veteran simply said: "We're human." Billups rightly added that the Nuggets were a last-second shot in Toronto away from an O-fer.
"We've got to keep moving," Billups said. "You're got to know where you're at. You've got to go home and try to regroup, and fight your way through it."
Returning to their Mile High comfort zone isn't necessarily a cure-all. There's no timetable for George Karl's return to the bench, illustrating again the importance of coaching in a players' league. Kenyon Martin reported progress Monday -- blood was injected into his left knee to help spur healing -- and hopes to get in a few games before the playoffs, but he's not sure that's going to happen or if he'll play at all.
K-Mart's absence for the 14th consecutive game is devastating to Denver's defensive efficiency. Consider Dirk Nowitzki racked up a triple-double Monday, doubling his career total in 12 years. Martin is the kind of physical/athletic power forward that gives Nowitzki fits. "You see things in every game that you know you can help with," said Martin.
Suddenly second place in the West, which was on the line Monday, seems about as realistic as catching the Lakers. This one loss dropped Denver to fifth, and the toughest finishing schedule in the West awaits the boys in powder blue. The Nuggets' last seven foes own a combined winning percentage of 58.4. San Antonio is the next highest (54.6 percent) of the other seven currently in the playoffs.
But the issues facing the Nuggets go beyond winning percentages, home-road splits and back-to-backs left. There's a mental hurdle that everyone sees, but no one can figure out how to jump. It starts with effort and focus, but Xs & Os can't be ignored.
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Interim coach Adrian Dantley has quickly learned that moving into the big chair is a lot longer than the 18 inches in real estate suggest. He admitted before what he called the "probably the biggest game of the year" that he needs to do a better job calling timeouts. While AD's honestly is admirable, those types of Coaching 101 missteps wouldn't happen with Karl roaming the sideline.
Dantley said he hasn't thought about the postseason possibly going through Dallas again. Really? Considering Karl, Kenyon and a potential collapse, not thinking ahead is understandable. Maybe it's best to not to look back either at what's happened over the past two weeks.
Billups said pointing to Dantley's inexperience and K-Martin's injury is the easy way out. Instead, the veteran point guard said he hasn't done a good enough job of leading, whether it's in games, practice, film sessions, etc.
"I probably haven't taken on a big enough piece of the pie," Billups said.
The Mavericks were equally ready to move on after an anticlimactic showing that never reached the pandemonium level of last year's conference semis. Dallas claimed the season series 2-1, despite playing twice in Denver. Should these two end up tied April 14, the Mavs won't have to spend an extra game in the thin Rocky Mountain air should their playoff paths cross.
The Nuggets arrived in Dallas after taking Orlando to the wire Sunday and their fatigue was evident early. Taking advantage of those heavy legs, Jason Kidd pushed the ball at every opportunity and Dallas was well on its way to a win before the first quarter was up.
But while effort on both sides could be rationalized as schedule-induced, the Mavs look at what they have now compared to what they had in a five-game playoff loss 11 months ago. Exhibit A: Shawn Marion. Matrix scored 21 on Monday; Carmelo Anthony, a season-low 10.
"Last year we didn't have that option to make Melo play defense," Kidd said.
One the reasons Dallas pursed Marion is for games such as these. Throw Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood into the mix, and the Mavs feel they aren't taking an athletic backseat to Denver or anyone else in the West.
Still, the Mavs don't expect a similar cakewalk in another Double-D series. Nowitzki considers the Nuggets one of the league's premier teams if they've got all their pieces in place. That "if" looms bigger than anything that happened Monday night.
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