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Fran Blinebury

George Karl
A hot start has given way to a cold streak for George Karl and the Denver Nuggets.
Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Nuggets hit a rough patch, but it's nothing like last season

Posted Feb 13 2012 2:45PM

There are plenty of reasons to feel bad for George Karl these days -- at least seven of them having to do with the number of losses by his team in its last nine games.

Spin the hands of the clock back barely a few weeks and the Nuggets were running through a five-game, coast-to-coast road trip like a virus on a Caribbean cruise ship.

Back then Denver was attacking the basket, attacking the glass and pushing the pace constantly. Back then Karl's most challenging task was to gather the troops for locker room talks that implored them to match their opponents' energy and take nothing for granted.

"The schedule says you're tired and you have all these NBA excuses," Karl said in the halftime break at Madison Square Garden in New York with his team down by eight. "But you have enough gas in the tank to go win this basketball game."

So the Nuggets did. That was something they did regularly back then, which is how Denver stood with a 14-5 record and the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference on the morning after thumping the Raptors barely three weeks ago.

Now the Nuggets are 16-12. Their world couldn't have been turned upside down faster if they'd have gone over a waterfall in a barrel. That's just a fact of life in this compressed 66-games-in-123-days, blink-and-you'll-miss-it, no-time-to-take a breath schedule. In almost less time than it takes to open a newspaper and locate the standings, a team can lose a couple of games and tumble in the playoff race.

And the Nuggets -- whose ups and downs are being documented this season in a behind-the-scenes documentary on NBA TV titled The Association: Denver Nuggets (the second episode debuts Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. ET) -- have lost more than a couple.

You could pity Karl for the injuries that have beset the Nuggets. Danilo Gallinari was lost for a month with a sprained ankle. Timofey Mozgov sprained his ankle and went out. Aaron Afflalo has had foot and leg injuries that have slowed his conditioning from the start of the season. Nene and Ty Lawson have had nagging foot problems.

Yet pity is not something Karl --a guy has spent nearly three decades as a head coach in the NBA and won more than 1,000 games -- wants any part of. It's certainly not the direction Karl will take. Not after last season.

Remember a year ago, when Karl often looked so haggard and thoroughly worn out as he made his way back to the Nuggets bench after battling throat and neck cancer, which had forced him to miss the end of the 2010 season. The twinkle was trying to return to his eyes, but there were plenty of times when his body was still weak.

Remember a year ago, when Karl was also practically tied into knots by the situation with his best player. Carmelo Anthony. While everyone involved tried so desperately to look away and ignore the obvious, the so-called 'Melo-Drama became a constant burden on the entire Nuggets organization and Karl in particular. How much more uncomfortable and difficult can it get than when the most-talented player in your locker room is virtually holding everyone else hostage?

So what's a little five-game losing streak compared to all of that?

Karl, a coach who grinds on after thousands of games and hundreds of losses, does what he always does. He has learned to overcome and to keep looking ahead. The summer after his powerful Seattle SuperSonics became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 8 seed in the 1994 playoffs, Karl would open his various speaking engagements before crushed and disappointed fans by playing a track from what was then the Eagles' latest album: "Get Over It."

To be sure, the Nuggets have problems. The defense that was full of energy and aggressiveness for the first month of the season has lost its bite. The Nuggets were torched by the ball-movement execution of Houston, maybe put the finishing touches on Dirk Nowitzki's unlikely drive to another All-Star berth when they allowed the Dallas star to explode for 25 points. And the Nuggets surrendered everything but their wallets in losing to Golden State at home before finally ending their skid Saturday night at Indiana.

Karl is staring at just as many problems at the other end of the floor with an offense that has stopped pushing the pace. Since his return from his foot problems, Lawson has settled for jump shots rather than running the pick-and-roll or attacking the basket. Gallinari's shooting touch was way off before he was hurt, but at least he had been filling lanes on the fast break, getting into the paint, making hustle plays that made a difference. Nene, as usual, has been up and down. "The Birdman" Chris Andersen has flown the coop virtually all season. Afflalo has been slow to show his form after signing his free-agent contact. Rudy Fernandez has struggled to find the basket with his 3-point shooting. The depth that was supposed to be the strength of the Nuggets has suddenly turned into a hole.

What's more, the Nuggets are a team without a clearly-defined closer, a No. 1 option late in games.

"I'm not as fearful of that as people are making it out to be," Karl told Chris Dempsey of the Denver Post. "You win games with other things as much as you do with going to a closer.

So all in all, while there are reasons to feel bad about George Karl's fix right now, we can at least say this: None of them is as bad as last season.

(Episode Two of The Association: Denver Nuggets premieres Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. on NBA TV. A re-air of Episode One will precede it at 6 p.m.)

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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