Can the Nuggets do it again?
Can they remain among the Western Conference elite?
Can they play enough defense and show enough discipline to rise above the reigning NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers?
In some form or another, Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony has heard the questions for as long as he can remember. His response? Keep 'em coming.
“We come into the season the same way every year," Anthony said. "It's always, 'Can?' 'Can Denver do this? Can Denver do that?' We like it like that. We don't want it to be, 'Denver Nuggets is…' We want to earn that. ... Yes we can. That's our new slogan: Yes we can, in spite of what anybody else says.”
What better platform to launch a campaign than on national television against the Lakers. Even the most pessimistic observers had to admit the Nuggets are for real after watching them hold the defending champs to a team-record-tying eight points in the third quarter of a 105-79 rout Friday night at the Pepsi Center.
Yes, it’s only one game in an 82-game season, but it showed the Nuggets remain a viable threat to unseat the Lakers next spring.
“They're at the top of the mountain and we have to figure out how to get ready for the opportunity – hopefully in May or June – to try to knock them off the top of the mountain,” Denver coach George Karl said.
“I think there's the seed of a rivalry here. I'm not sure we like them and I'm pretty sure they don't like us. And that's OK. They're a great team. It's very easy to see what we have to overcome to win the West. There's a high likelihood they’re the town we’re going to have to go through.”
On Friday night, the Nuggets looked like the new sheriff in town, building a 29-point lead and holding perennial MVP candidate Kobe Bryant scoreless in the second half after he broke loose for 19 points in the game's first 24 minutes.
Give much of the credit to Arron Afflalo, a key offseason acquisition brought in to replace defensive stopper Dahntay Jones. Bryant went 0-for-4 after halftime and was 2-for-10 overall while being guarded by Afflalo.
“We just made him fight a little bit more for his attempts,” Afflalo said. “That first half, he just made some tough shots. I was contesting him. He's a good player. He's going to knock down those shots sometimes. He's been doing it for years.”
With Bryant getting booed and the crowd whipping towels in a frenzy, there was a playoff atmosphere reminiscent of six months earlier when the Nuggets and Lakers met in the Western Conference finals. The Lakers eliminated Denver with a 27-point drubbing in Game 6 at the Pepsi Center, and the Nuggets were only too happy to return the favor.
“When you are an elite team, you always want to play the best,” Nuggets point guard Chauncey Billups said. “The way that we played them the last game here in our building (last spring) was just embarrassing. We wanted to come out and keep that rivalry alive.”
Nuggets rookie Ty Lawson got his first taste of the rivalry, and he literally rose to the occasion. He scored 13 points, added six assists and punctuated the victory with an eye-popping dunk over 7-foot center D.J. Mbenga and 6-9 forward Josh Powell. Within 45 minutes after the game, he had nearly 100 text messages waiting on his phone.
“Ty Lawson's dunk was pretty special,” Karl said. “The little kid (5-10) is a guy you fall in love with the more you watch him play.”
The same might hold true for the Nuggets, who emerged from a tough early season schedule (seven road games, four sets of back-to-backs) with a 7-3 record. Anthony, Kenyon Martin and Billups are providing the veteran leadership and swagger, while the bench brigade of Lawson, Chris Andersen and J.R. Smith is starting to gain traction.
“They just beat us,” Bryant said. “They beat us straight up and down.”
The last time Bryant went scoreless in a half was on April 11, 2004. It's a fact that is sure to stick with him until the Lakers and Nuggets meet again in February. Then again, maybe he and the Lakers will just shrug it off as just another game with little significance beyond November.
“I don’t think it's a rivalry at all,” Lakers center Andrew Bynum said. “They (the Nuggets) might feel that way, but we don't. We are just trying to get back to that championship level.”
Can the Nuggets do the same? Based on Friday night's peformance, Anthony might be onto something.
Yes they can.