Posted Mar 19 2010 11:22AM
On the one hand, there's reason for excitement because they're breathing right down the necks of the defending champions from Los Angeles as the final month of the regular season kicks into high gear.
On the other hand, there's reason to think they should already have the Lakers in their rearview mirror.
So often they can run up and down the floor with all of the energy and enthusiasm and know-how to trample anyone and anything that stands in their path.
Too often they spend parts of the very same night looking like they've been strapped into folding chairs and made to listen to a quantum physics lecture in ancient Greek. They look just plain bored.
If June comes and goes without the Denver Nuggets raising the Larry O'Brien Trophy, the most likely reason might be, well, the Denver Nuggets.
They're strong, athletic, aggressive, oozing with confidence. They're apathetic, lax and filled to the brim with overconfidence.
There have been so many occasions this season when the Nuggets have flexed their muscles and shown that they have everything that it takes to go the distance.
There have been too many times when they look like they've slept through the alarm clock and are still trying to shove one leg into their pants as they hurry out the door to work.
"We always seem to have been a second-half team this year for whatever reason," said point guard Chauncey Billups. "If we're down and start to get frustrated, we tighten up and do what we probably should have done 10-12 minutes before. Now, the later in the season it gets, the more we've got to start thinking about doing it earlier."
Can they? Or is it a character flaw that's simply hard-wired into their DNA?
"I don't know," said forward Carmelo Anthony, shrugging and wearing a sheepish grin. "I wish I could answer that. I don't know."
This is the team that strutted onto the floor at the Staples Center last spring and came within a couple of careless late-game inbounds passes in two separate games from taking a hammerlock lead on the Lakers in the West finals. This is the team that vowed to learn from that valuable experience.
"Championship teams pay attention to the details," Billups said. "That's what we did when I played on the team that won the championship in Detroit (2004). You don't let opportunities slip away and you don't beat yourself."
That yin and yang personality of the Nuggets had kept coach George Karl wrestling with his team's inconsistent mental approach long before taking up his courageous fight with neck and throat cancer. Theirs is a lineup that's loaded with talent. While all of the attention has gone to LeBron James' second straight MVP-worthy season and his free-agent future and to the dramatic rise of young Kevin Durant, Anthony has frequently flown beneath the radar but been no less stellar. He's raised his scoring average six points to nearly 29 a game and has consistently demonstrated his closer skills.
Billups continues to give the Nuggets stability and leadership at the point and speedy rookie Ty Lawson is an electric boost off the bench. Aaron Afflalo has claimed Dahntay Jones' old off-guard spot in the starting lineup and J.R. Smith can drop the hammer off the bench. If Kenyon Martin can return from his knee injury for the playoffs, the Nuggets will have their rugged defender and rebounder back. Nene is strong in the middle and even a Chris Andersen, who is not quite playing at last year's level, fills out an intimidating rotation.
But it's in their own head-to-head where the Nuggets have their problems, keeping their intensity all of the time, keeping themselves into every game.
Of the current top eight playoff seeds -- four in each conference -- the Nuggets are the only ones playing at just a .500 level on the road. They have wins over all of the other top seeds, including a 2-0 sweep of Cleveland. Yet the Nuggets also have lost to the bottom feeders in Minnesota, Sacramento (twice), Philadelphia, Washington and the Clippers. One night after Anthony had 40 points and outdueled James for an overtime win in Cleveland, the Nuggets went belly up in a loss to Washington.
"It's mental things that come back to haunt you," Billups said. "Little mental mistakes. It's a bad goaltend call or a turnover or we give up an and-1. Little things, especially on the road, have a way of hurting us.
"But really, it's just our intensity. If we come out and look to attack, play the way we can, there are not many teams that can stop us. It's a matter of when we do it. All season long, we've known we can get back into most games."
Which is both a valuable asset and potentially deadly liability.
"I don't think we'll be able to get away with that come playoff time," Anthony said. "I think it's something that's fixable, but we need to do it quick."
Or else the team that stops the Nuggets in the playoffs will be the Nuggets.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here.
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