With Game 6 loss, historic season comes to an end

Nuggets exceed expectations in 2008-09, have big goals for 2009-10

They started out in October as a largely unproven group of guys expected to finish somewhere on the outer fringe of the Western Conference playoff race.

Too offensive-minded, too undisciplined, too inconsistent. Those were the primary knocks on the 2008-09 Denver Nuggets.

Seven months later, a “How Ya Like Us Now” season finally came to an end.

After putting a scare into the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers for the better part of two weeks, the Nuggets were eliminated from the Western Conference finals Friday night with a 119-92 loss at the Pepsi Center.

Too many missed shots, too many untimely turnovers, too much Kobe Bryant. It all added up to a 4-2 series win for the Lakers.

Through the disappointment, Nuggets coach George Karl tried to emphasize the strides his team made over the past several months.

"I’ve coached a long time (21 NBA seasons) and this has been a pretty special season for me as a coach," Karl said. "I couldn’t have asked anything more from almost every guy in that locker room.

"I think every player on our team is a better basketball player than they were in November. I think they’re a better professional than they were in November. There’s a lot of energy that this team can be really, really good and I think that’s what we should focus in on at this moment."

When the season started, few expected the Nuggets to make the playoffs, much less storm within two games of their first NBA Finals appearance in franchise history.

Their best defensive player, center Marcus Camby, had been traded to the Los Angeles Clippers, and high-energy backup forward Eduardo Najera left as a free agent. Taking their place on the roster were unheralded guys such as Chris Andersen and Dahntay Jones.

A blockbuster trade with the Detroit Pistons three games into the season brought Park Hill legend Chauncey Billups back to Denver in exchange for Allen Iverson. It was at that point, the Nuggets began to grow.

Emphasizing defense and unselfishness, they won the Northwest Division and tied a franchise record with 54 wins before dispatching the New Orleans Hornets and Dallas Mavericks in five games each. It was the first time in 15 years the Nuggets advanced past the first round and the first time since 1985 that they reached the conference finals.

"Everybody outside this locker room never gave us a chance," forward Kenyon Martin said. "For us to put it together, we were right there. We had a great year that ended disappointing. These guys should hold their heads up. It’s going to hurt. It should hurt. We’ll think about it and just get prepared to play next year."

Though the Nuggets ultimately fell short of an NBA title, there is reason to believe 2008-09 served as the foundation for long-term success.

Except for guard Dahntay Jones, the entire starting five is under contract for at least two more seasons. Andersen, a highly effective defender off the bench, will be a free agent but doesn’t plan on going anywhere this summer. Jones (unrestricted), backup point guard Anthony Carter (unrestricted) and small forward Linas Kleiza (restricted) also will be free agents, but it would not be surprising to see all three back for 2009-10.

"We just need to stick together," forward Carmelo Anthony said. "It took the Lakers a couple years to get where they’re at right now. It took time. That’s where I see our team right now."

Anthony, Billups, Martin and Nene form the nucleus that will return next season, with J.R. Smith possibly moving into a starting role if he can prove to be more consistent on defense.

Of that core group, only Martin (31) and Billups (32) are in their 30s, and Denver’s youth and inexperience showed at times during the playoffs.

"One thing that we got this year that’s valuable is experience," said Billups, who has reached the conference finals seven straight years. "Now we know as a team what it takes in a lot of these situations.

"(Game 6) is the one challenge that we had never seen together yet – and that was when we were facing elimination. When you face elimination, you gotta leave it on the court. You can’t be outworked, you can’t be outrebounded. I think that’s something that going forward, we’ll learn from. We’ve got no choice. We’ll learn from it."

Some of life’s toughest lessons are delivered through disappointment. Though thrilled to take giant steps forward, the Nuggets are equally determined to prove their staying power.

"I think we’ve proven that we are a top team in the West – in the NBA period," Anthony said. "We’ve got to continue working hard, continue keeping ourselves at that level. Of course, we thought we were one of the best teams in the Western Conference. We can always talk. We can say it all day, every day, but until we go out and beat the Lakers, they’re going to be the best team in the West."

Come next fall, the Lakers undoubtedly will be looking over their shoulder.

"This Denver Nuggets team is a problem – big problem," Bryant said after a 35-point, 10-assist performance in the series-clincher. "With Chauncey on the perimeter, Carmelo, Nene, Martin … and J.R., it was a problem. We had to be on edge all the time. As soon as you relax, they’ll bust you."

After exceeding expectations in 2008-09, the Nuggets will not be able to sneak up on people next season. It’s a price they happily will pay for some well-earned respect.

Aaron J. Lopez is a former Nuggets beat writer for the Rocky Mountain News and a regular contributor to Nuggets.com.