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Scott Howard-Cooper

Carmelo Anthony (center), after averaging 30.4 points a game in November, averaged 28.9 last month.
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

Nuggets struggle with new life as the hunted team

Posted Jan 11 2010 11:15AM

Yes, the injuries. Of course the injuries. Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Chris Andersen -- all missing blocks of time or playing hurt, plus J.R. Smith and his season-opening suspension. That's a lot of diminished Nuggets firepower for a season not yet half over.

But it's not about that. Something is different with Denver, different enough to have slowly but unmistakably grown into a concern.

"I don't think we've responded that well to being one of the favorites," said the emotional leader, point guard Chauncey Billups.

"I think we've lost some games because of it," said the coach, George Karl.

Following up a trip to the Western Conference finals with a seemingly respectable 23-14 start -- whch has the Nuggets leading the Northwest Division -- is not an endorsement that everything is fine. That's the very thing that has gotten the Nuggets in trouble, actually, this new life as one of the chased.

Everything changed with the hugely successful 2008-09 season, and now the Nuggets haven't changed enough with it. The Nuggets went from being able to sneak up on people en route to a 54-28 record, a division title and a special ride all the way to the Western Conference finals, to entering the encore 2009-10 season with a bell around their necks to announce every move.

Good news: They have earned the respect of opponents.

Bad news: They have earned the respect of opponents.

"When you're one of the top teams, you win the games that you're supposed to win," said Billups, who should know, having played in seven consecutive conference finals with the Pistons and Nuggets. "I don't think we're doing a good job of that."

Loss to the Timberwolves on Nov. 29.

Loss to the Bobcats on Dec. 8.

Loss to the Pistons on Dec. 10.

Loss to the 76ers on Jan. 3.

Seven losses in the last 11 games, though there was also digging in to beat the Cavaliers on Friday.

"I don't know if [the approach and attitude has] been different," Billups said. "I just think this is the first time for most of the guys on this team being in that position. And it's not the same. It's different. When you come to town, you're everybody's big game now. It's a little different than coming to town and being able to sneak up on teams. We've struggled at trying to adjust to that.

"Any time you see something for the first time, you're not going to have the experience to know what to do. I think the first part of this season, the first 35-40 games, is teaching us how we're going to have to be as far having to step up and win the games we're supposed to win. At this point, we've struggled in that area."

Friday was a positive. Karl has been noting that the biggest personality difference between Denver last season and Denver present is on defense, with the inability to get the crucial stops it used to get. But the Cavaliers managed just three baskets the final 3:40, all by LeBron James. Good sign. Encouraging sign.

Then came Saturday. The Nuggets gave up 30 points in the third quarter and 29 in the fourth, going from a 13-point lead in the second period to a 102-100 loss at Sacramento. Flashing bad sign.

"With the injuries, we've had a lot of single-digit losses that I don't think we made the defensive plays down the stretch that we made last year," Karl said. "That's what excited me a little bit about [Friday]. I thought we won that game with defensive stops. So I think we're adjusting to teams coming after us. I actually thought I've seen our face go, 'How dare they play so hard against us?' Well, they're doing it because of what we did last year."

Which brings them back to the actual problem. And it's not Anthony's bruised knee or Billups' strained groin.

"We actually laid back too much ... and basically dropped a couple games that we should have won," said Andersen, who has battled tendinitis in his right knee and a sprained left ankle. "If we would have come out and played hard from the get-go instead of waiting until the end of the game to play hard, we would've actually won those games, which would be crucial come February, March, April. That's why we really need to start picking things up right now and start winning games."

They're the division leaders, and they need to start picking things up. Things have changed.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here.

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