Tough Nuggies

May 032005
Authors: Bob Fernandez

Well, unless the Nuggets can march into San Antonio and pull off a major upset, tonight will likely mark the end of the their playoff run.

Denver came within an inch, literally, of knocking off the Spurs at the Pepsi Center Monday night and tying the series at 2-2.

With 2:35 left in regulation, Nuggets backup point guard Earl Boykins drilled a perimeter shot that initially appeared to be a 3-pointer, only to have the baseline referee, who stood 25 feet away from the play, rule that he had a toe on the line.

The shot was ruled a 2-pointer, to the dismay of an infuriated Denver head coach in George Karl, and each team traded baskets the rest of the way, resulting in the game going into overtime.

The playoff-savvy Spurs dominated OT, outscoring the less-experienced Nuggets 19-8. The Nuggets lost the game 126-115, may soon lose the series, but they didn't lose their pride. With the exception of the Spurs' Game 2 blowout, the Nuggets have given the Spurs all they can handle in this series.

The Spurs may ultimately win the NBA Championship this year. There's no shame in losing to a team that has won two NBA titles in the last six years and has a good shot of making it three titles in the last seven years.

However, if one thing is evident from this playoff series, it is that the Nuggets, despite their impressive 32-8 record under Karl to finish the regular season (the best record in the NBA during that span), have not yet reached elite status in the NBA.

In this series, the Nuggets faced a team that year after year is a legitimate championship contender; something the Nuggets aspire to be one day.

Denver could learn a lot from a hard-fought series with the Spurs, who have debatably been the best team in the NBA since drafting all-star forward Tim Duncan in 1997. Certainly they've learned a lot more from this series than they did from last-season's lopsided first-round playoff exit at the hands of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Unlike last year, this year the Nuggets have a good sense of what it's like to play in multiple high-pressure, tightly-fought close playoff games; one of which even resulted in a Nuggets upset at San Antonio's SBC Center, where the Spurs posted a league-best 38-3 home record during the regular season. The Nuggets fell short this year, but next time they might not.

Denver is now on the verge of entering a pivotal off-season in which it'll look to make the final moves necessary to make the transition into a championship contender.

The last 10 days have been a step in the right direction. Adding a few consistent outside shooters and making an upgrade at shooting guard would be another couple steps.

However, because of the NBA's salary cap, the Nuggets will lack money during their negotiations with free agents this summer (the Nuggets will be limited to the mid-level exception, which will likely leave them with just less than $5 million to spend, which is only enough for average NBA talent).

Therefore, most of the Nuggets' strides will likely come on the practice court, not at the negotiating table.

When the 2005-06 regular season kicks off next fall, the Nuggets will have had the benefits of participating in a full training camp under Karl, who joined the team just past the season's halfway point on Jan. 27.

Karl will get a chance to strengthen the weaknesses of a team that has struggled this season with half-court offensive execution, defensive rebounding and perimeter defense.

So perhaps with the learning experiences that result from a playoff series with a world-class San Antonio basketball team and training with one of the most successful coaches in NBA history in Karl, the Nuggets may be the ones shoving past a less-talented and less-playoff-tested team and clawing their way deep into the playoffs next year.

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