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Steve Aschburner

Adrian Dantley, right, is in his sixth season next to George Karl on Denver's sidelines.
Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Dantley, Nuggets band together while Karl fights his fight

Posted Mar 11 2010 11:50AM

Adrian Dantley's No. 1 priority on those game nights when he fills in for Denver head coach George Karl is taken straight from the Hippocratic oath: primum non nocere. First, do no harm. Not unlike the physicians and caregivers with whom Karl is working these days on what most definitely is not a game.

Dantley adheres to the motto whenever he moves one chair over in Karl's absence, as he did Wednesday night in the Nuggets' 110-102 victory at Minnesota.

Karl missed his second game in two weeks to undergo his continuing treatment for throat cancer (squamous cell carcinoma), and the regimen of radiation and chemotherapy is scheduled to get more intense and difficult over the next month, with Dantley handling more and more in games and practices.

"George has always left everything to me," Dantley said before tipoff at Target Center for what would be his fourth game keeping Karl's seat warm. He spelled the head coach for a game in April 2007 against the Lakers, took over against Detroit in February 2008 when Karl was sick, then did it at Golden State on Feb. 25, nine days after the emotional announcement of Karl's latest battle (he is a prostate-cancer survivor, too).

"Just be myself," Dantley said. "Make substitutions. Give my ideas. And hopefully we come out with the win. They should know their roles. Every player on that team knows the plays. We've only got, like, 18 games left in the season so they should know by now. But players tend to forget sometimes, so that's why you keep going over and over it."

Now more than ever, in the weeks heading toward the postseason, teams strive to settle into grooves, sanding any rough spots, fine-tuning, smoothing and lubricating for those best-of-seven days when the slightest inconsistency can spoil an entire year. Few things could be less groove-friendly than having your head coach -- beloved, cantankerous, passionate, crafty and inseparable from all the Nuggets have done over the past six seasons -- yanked away sporadically and with increasing frequency. And that's just in terms of Xs & Os. There is the whole psychological aspect of it as Denver players and the men on Karl's staff think and fret and go off with him a little bit mentally.

This, after all, is just basketball. But that -- that -- is something entirely bigger, more urgent, beyond any extra gym time or film review.

"We want to win the games," veteran point guard Chauncey Billups said late Wednesday. "But we're trying to put this in perspective -- this is a game, this is a job. Life is what George is going through. You take inspiration from him by how he's handling the situation. How he's facing it head-on, man. He's just saying, 'I'm going to deal with what I've got. Some days might be tough, but on days I can make it, I'm going to make it.' When you've got somebody pouring your heart out for you like that, you've got no choice but to do the same thing."

Sometimes there is slippage. When it happens on the court, that's where Dantley comes in. In the first half against the Timberwolves, the Nuggets were being the Nuggets -- that is, as they often do, they were playing for too long without focus or energy, falling behind 53-48 by halftime against an inferior opponent. Maybe that was a compliment to Dantley, that they would treat him the same way they treat Karl. But it clearly wasn't working. And if injured forward Kenyon Martin was sincere when he spoke of Karl's plight and the players' responsibility -- "We're not trying to add any more extra stress on George than he already has" -- they were failing badly.

The generally soft-spoken Denver assistant coach, described by Karl as more of a "starer" in making his points to players, let them know that.

"If [Karl's cancer battle] was a motivator, they wouldn't have played the way they did in the first half," Dantley said afterward. "Because I'm sure George was calling some guys some names on TV ... We know how our team does against certain teams. We've got to correct that and try to come out with effort, play harder. But no matter how much George might tell them or I might tell them, we still took it easy."

Said Martin (left knee tendinitis), who watched the game from the locker room: "I was back here stressing, so I can only imagine how he was feeling at home."

The Nuggets let themselves get outworked for another four minutes, then flipped their switch. Down 63-55 with 7:51 left in the third quarter, they outscored Minnesota 37-13 over the next 12 minutes, getting full attention and big contributions from Billups, J.R. Smith and Chris Andersen. Dantley used a light hand to close things out, and improved to 3-1 as a substitute head coach, 2-0 in these trying circumstances.

Karl has tried for a couple years now to boost the Nuggets beyond their marvelous and sufficient talent, to find the maturity, discipline or calling outside themselves to push toward the Finals. He wondered aloud last month if this crisis -- for him primarily but for all of them -- might be the thing to do that. Then again, that would suggest a departure in routine, in outlook, that could work against Dantley's top priority.

"I don't know if you can say we want to 'Win one for the Gipper,' " the Naismith Hall of Famer said. "It might not work that way. Players are going to be players, and that's their personalities. We have to go out and win basketball games. We know we're in a close race."

Minnesota coach Kurt Rambis, who filled in for boss Phil Jackson several times when he was on the Lakers' staff, is an advocate of sticking with the status quo in these types of circumstances. "They know their roles, they know their system, they know each other," Rambis said. "So it's a matter of just managing and massaging the game based on what happens out there. To be a disruptive force by trying to implement too much would take the players out of their comfort zone."

The thing with the Nuggets is -- and this may help them -- their comfort zone already includes lots of uncomfortable stuff, from center Nene's bout with testicular cancer and Karl's previous cancer scare to the Allen Iverson saga and on and on. That might help them all now.

"Since Coach has been here, there have been a lot of things we've gone through as a team, with players, injuries, things with coaches," assistant coach Jim Gillen said. "We've always seemed to band together, and that's turned out to be a positive for us. We've fought through all those things.

"We've had a little experience with it. We've had the same coaches around, many of the same players. So there's a camaraderie there that's stronger than people think.

"Maybe stronger than we think."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.

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