Nuggets reserves bring chaos, production off the bench

Birdman, J.R.Smith and rookie Lawson lead 'Crucial Conflict'

Kenyon Martin had seen the ritual but never been in the middle of it.

During the opening seconds of every game, the Nuggets’ reserves form a rugby huddle – arms over shoulders, heads bowed toward the middle – near the Denver bench.

Sitting out with an injury early in the season, Martin ducked his head into the huddle out of curiosity and camaraderie.

“Y’all are crazy!” he said as his teammates bounced and chattered in unison. “Y’all are Crucial Conflict.”

Martin was a freshman at the University of Cincinnati when the Chicago rap/hip-hop group Crucial Conflict climbed the Billboard charts with the single “Hay” in 1996. He kept listening when the group released their second album Good Side, Bad Side in 1998.

“They’re definitely wild,” Martin said.

Given the sometimes-chaotic nature of primary Denver reserves Chris Andersen, Anthony Carter, J.R. Smith and Ty Lawson, Crucial Conflict is a fitting nickname, considering the music group's four members go by the pseudonyms Coldhard, Kilo, Never and Wildstyle.

The Nuggets’ bench has characters such as Birdman, Ace, Swish and Ty-Law. They indeed will be Crucial – for lack of a better term – in the first round of the playoffs as they try to run, dunk, chest bump and generally cause problems for the Utah Jazz.

“I was on the court with them one day. I was like, ‘Look here, man. These boys are crazy,’ ” Martin said. “Throwing that ball all around, running around crazy.”

The Denver reserves didn't disagree with Martin's assessment and immediately adopted the Crucial Conflict name as their pre-game huddle rallying cry. It serves as a reminder of how they want to play.

“Hectic,” said Lawson, a turbo-powered rookie point guard. “Once the ball comes off the rim or out of the net, we just run. That’s all we do.”

The Jazz had no answer for the youngest Crucial Conflict member during the regular season. Lawson scored 17 points and added six assists in his NBA debut against the Jazz on Oct. 28. Starting in place of injured point guard Chauncey Billups on Jan. 2, he had 23 points and a career-high nine assists and three steals.

In four games – two starts – against the Jazz, Lawson averaged 19 points, five assists and 1.8 steals to help the Nuggets win three of four games in the season series. He’s looking forward to continuing that success on the grand stage of the playoffs.

“I like the big-time games with the crowd going wild,” said Lawson, a year removed from winning the NCAA title with North Carolina. “I can’t wait until Saturday so we can get it started.”

Carmelo Anthony and Billups are Denver’s headliners, but the Nuggets couldn’t have won 53 games and their second consecutive Northwest Division title without their key role players off the bench.

Lawson, Joey Graham, Malik Allen and Johan Petro each started at least three games because of injuries to Anthony, Billups and Martin. Carter, Petro and Allen also saw increased minutes due to injuries to fellow Crucial Conflict members Andersen and Lawson, not to mention an early season suspension for Smith.

“That’s a collective effort, man,” Billups said. “The only way the team is able to hold on and continue on that path to get to 50 wins is to have very quality guys coming off the bench that are filling in roles and playing some big games. You need everybody to be able to win 50 games, especially in this Western Conference.”

It remains to be seen how assistant coach Adrian Dantley handles his bench in the playoffs. Starters tend to play more in the postseason because of the importance of every possession and the absence of back-to-back games. Dantley at least has the luxury of knowing that everybody on his bench can contribute.

“We’ve got quality guys on the second unit,” Dantley said. “We’ll just have to wait and see how it goes.”

Smith and Andersen are virtually assured of playing 20 to 25 minutes. Smith is one of the NBA’s top reserves after hitting 158 3-pointers and averaging a career-high 15.4 points, but he also can be turnover-prone and take misguided shots.

“We need J.R. to play good basketball,” Dantley said. “Make good decisions, take good shots and play hard.”

Playing hard is never an issue for Andersen, who continues to play through the pain of a sprained left pinkie and a broken bone in his left ring finger.

Asked to describe Crucial Conflict’s style of play, Andersen was succinct.

“We’re energetic, fast-paced, up-tempo,” Birdman said. “Don’t (mess) with us.”

It’s a fair warning. Denver’s reserves accounted for at least 35 points 27 times this season, and the Nuggets went 23-4 in those games.

“A lot of guys on the team could start,” said Graham, who started 18 games. “That’s what makes the team so good and so well-rounded. There’s very little dropoff from the starters to the second group. That’s what makes this team so tough to beat.”

The second unit is at its best when Smith is attacking the basket and hitting 3-pointers; when Andersen is rebounding and blocking shots; when Lawson is pushing the ball from end-to-end; and when Carter is forcing turnovers at the defensive end.

If all that comes together the first round, the Jazz will have a major conflict on its hands.

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