Balkman ready to answer when opportunity knocks

If basketball historians ever have cause to examine the Nuggets’ final regular-season game of 2010, a few items will jump off the page.

Carmelo Anthony’s name on the inactive list. Chauncey Billups’ 36 points and perfect 6-for-6 three-point shooting. Denver’s 37-point fourth quarter in a 119-113 road win over the Northwest Division-rival Minnesota Timberwolves.

Those who watched the game will pause to appreciate the unsung stat line of Nuggets forward Renaldo Balkman: 10 points, one rebound, one assist and one blocked shot in 18 minutes, 35 seconds.

There are times during an NBA season when an early season road game against an underestimated opponent can result in a haunting loss once the playoff seedings take shape in April. Whether it’s in Minnesota or Miami, San Antonio or Sacramento, each victory carries equal significance.

Despite playing in just three of Denver’s first 30 games, Balkman was a big part of the meaningful Minnesota win.

Playing their fourth game in five nights, the Nuggets were facing rebounding machine Kevin Love and high-scoring forward Michael Beasley without big men Anthony (death in the family), Nene (lower back/hamstring), Al Harrington (thumb) and Kenyon Martin (knee, scheduled rest).

“I didn’t know until the game started that I was going to play,” Balkman said. “You’ve always got to be ready, though. I stayed ready. Any given time they call my name, I’m going to go out there and give it my all. I’m never going to miss out on my opportunity to play basketball.”

That might not have been the case a year ago when he played only 13 games and struggled to accept the uncertainty of his role with the team.

After averaging a career-best five points in 52 games for Denver’s 2009 Western Conference finals team, Balkman signed a three-year contract extension during the summer. An ankle injury hampered his ability to break into coach George Karl’s playing rotation out of training camp, and things went from bad to worse when he suffered a severe back injury in the first week of February.

Balkman said his attitude and effort were affected by his frustrating season.

“It was my first year not really playing basketball. I never sat out that many games,” he said. “I’ve never been on somebody’s bench or been the last man on somebody’s roster. I’m not a superstar or a five-star player or make the most money on the team, but I can play basketball.

“I felt like at times last year ‘I’m no 14th man on anybody’s roster.’ I’ve dealt with it better this year. I’m more focused this year.”

Karl and the coaching staff have noticed an improvement in Balkman’s practice habits this season, but his playing time remains dependent on the health of Denver’s frontcourt. Reserves Chris Andersen, Harrington and Shelden Williams remain ahead of Balkman in the pecking order.

“He might not like it, but for me, Renaldo’s got to prove himself in practice and re-prove himself in practice,” Karl said. “He’s been doing better and the opportunity was there for him (in Minnesota) and he did a great job. I’m excited for that, but the consistency of his minutes can’t be dictated.”

When he’s on the court, Balkman provides energy with his defense, rebounding and willingness to run the floor. Of his 10 points against the Timberwolves, eight came on dunks and layups.

“He was a game-changer,” said Anthony, who told Balkman as much during a postgame phone call. “His energy changed the pace of the game, and he helped us win.

“He might not play for 10 games, and he still has the same attitude, the same approach coming into the gym. He always has a positive attitude. We see that as teammates”

One of Balkman’s strengths is his ability to fill the lane on the fast break, something that Karl is always seeking from his big men.

“I think he’s more committed at running the floor than (a lot of) our bigs,” Karl said. “Older guys don’t always make the commitment. I think Renaldo makes the commitment because he’s more hungry and more energized.”

That hunger grew during the summer when Balkman played for the Puerto Rican national team at the 2010 FIBA World Championship. He had 10 points and 13 rebounds in 34 minutes against China and averaged 4.6 points and 6.6 rebounds in five games overall.

“That really got me going because I played the whole summer,” Balkman said. “I didn’t take any time off. I wanted to make myself better. Every day in the summer I got better. It’s all about opportunities. When Coach calls my name, I’m going to give it my all.”

Given the unpredictable nature of pro sports, the next opportunity could come as soon as this week when the Nuggets face the Los Angeles Clippers and Sacramento Kings in back-to-back road games Wednesday and Thursday.

Rest assured, Balkman will be ready.