Posted May 10 2012 10:30AM
DENVER -- This is George Karl's team. That's not a title thing -- coach -- either. The Nuggets are George Karl in so many ways that there is no way to miss the connection in personality and play.
It's how he will be the calmest guy in the building Thursday night. Game 6 of the first round, the chance to get the Lakers in full backpedal mode, fans inside Pepsi Center amped up like it's a Broncos game, the Nuggets gaining confidence by the second ... and Karl will spend a good portion of the biggest home game since the run to the Western Conference finals three years ago leaning against the scorer's table a few feet from the bench. Maybe his hands will rest palms down on the padding, maybe his arms will be crossed.
Either way, he will project relaxed as the arena turns into a cauldron all around him.
That has always been the case, even when his SuperSonics were in The Finals against Michael Jordan's Bulls in 1996. It's just that it is especially true now. Karl continues to embrace a connection with the post-Carmelo Anthony Nuggets in a way he has bonded with few of his other rosters in 24 seasons in Cleveland, Golden State, Seattle, Milwaukee and Denver. This week is exactly why in capsule form.
The Nuggets, heavy underdogs when the first round opened, have come so far in the last few games to turn a 2-0 deficit into an actual series that they have finally mirrored their coach's famous commitment to the job. (Karl on the off-day after Game 1: "It's kind of a respect or humility toward the game of basketball that when you do things the right way, you get rewarded." He takes respect-the-game very serious.)
Denver has quickly grown up before everyone's eyes to become the aggressor against a team with a lengthy playoff resume. For the Nuggets, that's an invaluable experience that will pay dividends in future seasons no matter how long this one lasts.
And the comeback itself? So Karl.
He had cancer of the neck and throat and missed games the second half of the 2009-10 season, including all of the first-round loss to Utah. Treatments were hellish and his future was uncertain. But he endured and his doctors offer very encouraging medical updates. His voice is getting stronger all the time, an important detail in his line of work.
Some coincidence, then, that Karl, a former CBA coach, has a long history of connecting with the basketball survivors, the guys in on minimum deals, the players from the minors. Sure, he coached Gary Payton, Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Shawn Kemp, Anthony and Chauncey Billups. But Karl helped Nate McMillan build a career. He helped Michael Redd, Dahntay Jones and Chris Andersen get big contracts.
These Nuggets are no different. The coach from the Pittsburgh suburbs now relies heavily on Arron Afflalo and Kenneth Faried, starters who earned NBA jobs through toughness and determination, not glamour roles. Without any dependable post threat on offense, Denver led the league in points in the paint, mostly because the wings worked their way inside or, in the case of point guard Ty Lawson, smoked past defenders to penetrate.
"George is a fighter," Afflalo said. "He's a fighter on and off the court, and it won't stop. We all respect and appreciate his experience and what he does for this team, what he means to us. It's always good to have him there on the sideline."
The Lakers have Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, skilled and tested 7-footers, and the Nuggets were still tougher in Game 5. When it hasn't been about muscle, Denver has played with the energy that made Bynum, in particular, look very bad by contrast.
That's just the latest example of why Karl likes coaching this group so much.
"They're coachable," he said. "They play with a passion and they play together. I think they play the right way generally, most of the time. I think there's a lot of games in the NBA that people don't play the right way. And I think we play right."
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