Andersen shines as Nuggets return to winning ways at home
It wasn’t long ago that an improbable comeback story captivated the Denver sports scene.
Though not on the scale of Tebow Mania or Lin-Sanity, the Birdman Phenomenon of 2008-09 was pretty powerful stuff as Chris Andersen swatted shots, converted two-hand dunks and turned spiked faux-hawks into a Pepsi Center fashion trend.
Andersen gave Nuggets fans a flashback performance Tuesday night against the Phoenix Suns.
Idle for five of the previous seven games, Birdman put his fresh legs and shot-blocking limbs to good use, scoring 16 points and blocking six shots to help Denver end a five-game home losing streak with a 109-92 victory over the Suns.
“I’m always ready to go, mentally and physically,” Andersen said. “It’s not about the five games I didn’t play. Those are just excuses. You’ve got to throw that out the window as soon as you get out there on that floor and do what you’re born to do – and that’s play basketball.”
With starting big men Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov and Nene sidelined by injuries, Nuggets coach George Karl turned to Andersen for rebounding and interior defense. The season-high scoring production was a bonus.
“With all the injuries, we’re going to have to piece some games together, and tonight Birdman gave us a winning game,” Karl said. “I’m happy for him.”
Andersen started the season as part of the primary rotation, but his minutes became sporadic with the emergence of young players such as Corey Brewer, Kenneth Faried and Kosta Koufos.
Instead of sulking, Andersen continued to stay focused in practice in the event that an opportunity presented itself.
“The other guys are working just as hard. They deserve a chance,” he said of his younger teammates. “Whenever George calls my name, I’m ready. That’s all you have to do.”
Andersen’s teammates certainly weren’t surprised by his strong performance. It was simply Birdman of 2011-12 being Birdman of 2008-09, when he returned from a two-year NBA suspension and enjoyed a Denver renaissance.
“It’s Birdman. He’s definitely a wild-card,” point guard Ty Lawson said. “He was being aggressive. That’s what we need. We’ve got to find some minutes for big Birdman.”
Reserve forward Al Harrington seconded that motion.
“I love playing with him,” he said. “I’ve been telling the assistant coaches that when he’s out there, he brings a tremendous spark defensively.”
Defense certainly fueled the Nuggets after the Suns erased an early 16-point deficit and tied the game 3:13 into the second half. Denver responded by forcing six turnovers and blocking four shots – two by Andersen and two by Koufos – during a decisive 24-8 run to close the third quarter.
“Defense is what we have to do to win,” Brewer said. “Offensively, we can score points, but when we are guarding people, we are going to win a lot of games.”
Arron Afflalo has established himself as one of Denver’s top defenders, but he also happens to be the team’s hottest player on offense. With 20 points against Phoenix, he has scored 20-plus in three straight games. During that stretch, Afflalo is shooting .605 from the field (23-for-38).
“I’m just relaxing and playing,” he said. “When we were losing, it wasn’t a good feeling. I just go out to compete and play to win and let my game speak for itself.”
Afflalo’s leadership continues to grow along with his game. With the Nuggets leading by 20 in the fourth quarter Tuesday, he prevented Phoenix guard Jared Dudley from getting a breakaway layup by running him down from half-court and slapping the ball out of bounds.
“Just building good habits,” Afflalo said. “We play to the score too many times. We have a young group here, so it’s not so much about the scoreboard. It’s more about building habits.”
It was the type of play that can help Karl in the huddle, in the locker room and on the practice court.
“Arron wants to lead our team both physically and mentally,” the coach said. “Hustle’s a big part of the game, and when you have one of your best players hustling, it can enhance my ability to demand it from everybody else.”
The Nuggets will have to dig deep again Wednesday as they complete yet another back-to-back set with a road game against the Dallas Mavericks.
The matchup with the defending champs represents the start of a three-game road trip that also includes stops in Memphis on Friday and Oklahoma City on Sunday.
“This is a trip where we need all three of them,” Harrington said. “We have to show that sense of urgency out there on the court. Usually we can say, ‘Let’s get two out of three,’ but after the way we had that five-game (losing) streak, we need all of them, so that’s our focus.”
Notes: With his team playing the second of back-to-back-to-back games, Suns coach Alvin Gentry opted to rest All-Star point guard Steve Nash, 38, and starting forward Grant Hill, 39. “We definitely missed Steve and we definitely missed Grant,” said Phoenix guard Michael Redd, who finished with a season-high 20 points … Koufos was not among the six Nuggets who scored in double-figures, but he finished with nine points, nine rebounds and a career-high five steals … Afflalo’s career-best streak of 24 straight made free throws ended when he missed his first attempt of the game … Faried scored a career-high 13 points … With 605 blocked shots in a Nuggets uniform, Andersen moved past Antonio McDyess (604) for sixth place in franchise history.