Including but not limited to thoughts on a professional basketball team. (1976 ABA’s First Dunk Contest -Photo by Carl Iwasaki)

Talkin’ Nuggets Blues

Please forgive any misspellings in this post, I’m typing with one hand, my left, while my other is in a blender. I’ve eaten a full bag of candy hearts (thanks again mom) and I’m about to smash a full can of Pringles before bed. Little by little, that’s how hearts break. Rarely does it shatter all at once under some immense force. It gets chipped, shaved, sanded down over time until it becomes a tiny ball which, if you look close enough, has a likeness to Kevin Durant.

A tiny chisel will do the trick. A few traveling violations in crunch time by a veteran, a few blown defensive assignments, particularly on pick and rolls, a look of panic in the face of our young leader with the ball in his hands at the end of the game; soon enough, you look down and think, oh those are little pieces of my heart on the floor, but the vacuum is in the closet and it needs a new bag anyway.

The glass of whiskey on the table next to me (what else does one wash pills down with these days?) is half…One wants to say full. There is still hope. The bench played fantastic. We will be getting key players back soon after the all-star break. Wilson Chandler might be so excited to be playing in America again that he could instantly put up 30 a game. I take a swig. Now it is completely empty.

This is what the Nuggets are. A very exciting team that is fun to watch. Young, creative, driven, slightly inept but good enough to pull you toward the belief that they can do some damage in the playoffs if only, IF ONLY. They are the NBA’s best IF ONLY team. If only they were healthy. If only they played smarter on defense. If only they had a few more practices. If only they played in the pathetic Eastern Conference or, really, any division other than the Northwest. They have the talent to provoke these questions. I pour some more whiskey. I’m out of pills so I go for the Flinstone vitamins. Fred looks at me and tells me that I shouldn’t be making excuses. I should just enjoy this team for what it is. He imagines that more than half of the cities with NBA teams would kill to have this roster and their effort. I eat his orange, chalky head and call it a night.


Sweet Vengeance

I’ll admit I did not watch the first Clippers-Nuggets game in Denver under the assumption that doing so would be like taking a pair of scissors and using them to reopen a stitched wound on my own arm. The night was instead spent weeping into my blue #1 Billups jersey. My return to Nugget-viewing was spoiled by NBA TV’s airing of Memphis’ hometown broadcast which featured a twangy analyst with a penchant for the word “we” and a tendency to instruct and encourage certain Grizzlies during the game (“Knock that down O.J.” and, the low point for home announcing crews, after a made free throw, “Attababy!”). Oh, and the Nuggets decided to blow a 13 point lead and lose in overtime. Yes, it was a learning experience that will ultimately build mental toughness, but it felt like getting elbowed away from the pack just as the distracted bartender looked your way.

Among the various motivations working on NBA players (money, pride, competition, bragging rights, air-time on SportsCenter), vengeance is, perhaps, the most effective. I was almost happy for Chauncey after his big night back home. Ultimately, however, it felt like just another elbow from one of the many Western Conference goons crowded around the tiny bar  with the distracted and purblind bartender. Imagine, then, my excitement Thursday night as Mozgov, on one end, could not miss with his left-handed jump-hook, and on the other end, did not shy away from knocking a travel-prone highlight chaser to the ground; as Afflalo checked Chris Paul hard with his forearm only to see him flop over, look to the ref, and start whining; as Lawson zoomed down the court creating easy shots; as the defense assumed a ferocity to create a turnover or a bad shot that they could send down to the other end for an easy 2; as Lob City was invaded by a crew of international ballers with bad hair cuts (Mozgov’s hairstyle at this point looks like one giant cowlick) and killer jumpers.

Afflalo played great. Harrington is still the best at celebrating after a made 3 point shot. And George Karl still knows how to use guilt-inducing gestures like lowering his head and slowly rubbing his temples to motivate his team. Nene often falls asleep when he should be helping on defense. These are facts. But these Nuggets had the gleam of vengeance in their eye tonight. Perhaps those tough back-to-back losses provided the kind of motivation they’ll need to endure one of the toughest back-to-back-to-backs the NBA could possibly arrange this season.

Velvet Suits and Hair Gel

It may be remembered in history as the largest (legal) transaction to ever go down in a Sacramento hotel. 4 years, $42 million to play basketball and wear things like this. Mr. Danilo Gallinari, the way you are playing right now, you deserve to wear all the velvet suits your new contract can buy. You have surpassed all expectations so far this season. You are 23 (are we sure about this?), you defend, you get to the basket, you get to the line, and you have convinced my wife that you’re really an underwear model by day. Are you the go-to guy in the clutch? Maybe. I think a lot of that depends on hair gel – seems like you always play better without it (more on that once the lazy John Hollinger starts measuring the statistical significance of hair product). More importantly, you fit.

Gallo’s extension is as much an investment in the unselfish identity this franchise is trying to build as it is in Gallinari himself (is he seriously only 23? Does Italy have a different way of measuring time? Don’t know what it is, but Gallo seems like he’s 28 at least. Reminds me of this quote from Virginia Woolf). Tied for best assist ratio in the league, the Nuggets are casting themselves as the NBA’s most unselfish team . George Karl, with his vintage depth of obviousness, has called Gallo “more of a basketball player than a shooter.” All these Nuggets are basketball players in this same sense. They  defend, they run, they shoot. They ball. Straight up. And basketball players love playing with other basketball players. It’s fun playing with a bunch of unselfish but talented ballers. That is, until the dreaded luxury tax breaks up the party. But if Monotone Masai can keep supplementing his core of unselfish basketball players with more unselfish role-playing basketball players, he may be on to something. The likelihood of a squad with this kind of makeup bringing home a championship is a debate for every other day for the rest of this season (I, personally, think it’s possible. Remember 2004).

You are now permitted to go out and buy your Kosta Koufos jersey.

Image + Graphic by Katherine Miles Jones

Quality Programming Alert

Slow motion practice shots? Masai Ujiri’s monotone? Gallo’s accent and just-rolled-out-of-bed-for-practice hair? George Karl making biblical references? Count me in!

Effort, Guts, Resolve: January 21, 2012, Nuggets at Knicks

In a vibrant Madison Square Garden Saturday night, there seemed to be more at stake than the outcome of a regular season NBA game. The outcome was important, of course. The Nuggets are trying to keep up with a ferocious and wide open western conference, and the Knicks are trying to stay afloat for a coach whose seat is hot enough to melt the snow atop the famous arena right now. But as the game crept into the final minutes of the fourth quarter it began to feel as if two opposing philosophies of basketball were being played out on the court to determine which was right. This is ridiculous and not actually true. It was one game. Still, in the heat of watching it live online (thanks a lot MSG and Time Warner), as my wife rolled her eyes and switched on Barefoot Contessa, as I held my breath, twitched, and shamefully put up middle fingers every time the camera showed Bill Walker celebrating on the bench (it’s just…something about him), every possession became a referendum on The Trade. I say again, this is ridiculous and not actually true. Regardless of which team wins a championship this year, next year, or in future years, the Nuggets have clearly won the trade, judging from what has happened since it went down. They are clearly the better team, deeper, and playing better basketball. Still, when the Melo Iso kept working down the stretch, even on a double team, the thought prodded and poked. You need a superstar. You need a superstar. I was trapped in the game, unable to see the long view.

The end of the 4th: Gallo is having a monster game, and is fouled with 7 seconds left, up one. He’s at the line with a chance to ice the game against the team that shipped him to a place he refers to as “the provinces” for a more talented player. He has redemption in his hands. He misses the first free throw, but makes the second. Nuggets 98, Knicks 96. Melo receives the inbound pass at the right elbow, and Gallo closes out hard, knocking Melo off balance. He dribbles back, outside the 3 point line and quickly tries to drive left, but Gallo is too quick. He slides over, blocking access to the lane as Corey Brewer leaves his man to help on Melo. Melo has not once looked up to see if there is an open man. I realize this possession is the epitome of Knick basketball so far this season, one superstar dribbling around trying to find a shot. I am elated. With Brewer contesting the shot, Melo spins right and fades, the ball is in the air and perfect. Nuggets 98, Knicks 98.

After being largely silent the whole game, focused, I would say, as if my concentration could actually influence player movement, I couldn’t take it anymore. To keep myself from vomiting, I shouted out, “But…he doesn’t deserve to win this game!” I had visions of him making the game winner in overtime, the media drenching him with praise. I leaped forward in time and saw a champagne soaked D’Antoni awkwardly wearing a 2012 NBA Champions hat and talking about this very game being the turning point in their season (which it could ultimately end up being, even in defeat. Maybe this is the tipping point for Melo. Maybe his former team beating him lights a fire, makes him team-first, and changes the course of their season. Maybe such a change would inspire Amare, make him play better. Maybe Baron Davis is coming back at the perfect time and the Knicks will go on a crazy run deep into the playoffs. I have irrational fears).

OT: Melo comes off a pick from Chandler. Nene switches onto Melo, then, after Melo passes it to Landry in the corner, Nene inexplicably and nonchalantly returns to his man in the paint, leaving Melo wide open. Landry immediately passes it back to Melo. The ball is in the air and perfect. 103-100, Knicks. You need a star. I turn away from my computer screen and look at the TV. A man clips a purple flower mid-stem and puts it in a bag for Ina Garten. Life is over with 2:32 left in OT. A few possessions later, Al “See, You Did the Right Thing in Not Amnestying Me” Harrington, who had another fantastic night, senses a moment. He finds himself with the ball on the wing and Toney Douglas guarding him. As he backs him down, with 5 seconds on the shot clock, Chandler comes over to double and knocks the ball free. Al, Toney, and Chandler fall over in a clump of arms, none of which are able to grab the ball that is headed for the scorer’s table. It bounces once, just inbounds enough for Andre Miller, who has run from the opposite side of the floor, to grab it and launch something in-between a set shot and a jump shot from 31 feet away just before the shot clock buzzes. The ball is in the air and perfect. 103-103. Miller walks back toward the erupted Nuggets bench along the long, green, digital advertisement for Sprite on the scorer’s table. I am rejuvenated and making funny faces in disbelief. Melo hits right back. You need a superstar. Al misses, I lose my shit. Nene grabs the offensive board, I lose my shit. Andre Miller misses one of his 3 point set shots, and I lose my shit again. Melo with the board. Knicks up 2, with the ball, in overtime, 30 seconds left. I can feel the dagger. Melo and D’Antoni embrace in a future champagne shower. Melo faces up on Al near the 3 point line and rises up. The ball is in the air and perfect, only this time, it clangs off the back of the rim. Order is restored to the universe. Chandler fouls Nene on the rebound with 9 seconds left. Nene, 0-4 from the line tonight, sinks both free throws. I never doubted him for a second.

That’s when it hit me. This team was playing its 4th road game in 5 nights (its 2nd overtime game of the trip) after getting in at 4 a.m. that morning because of a snowstorm without its two shooting guards. This would be an unprecedented streak for the franchise. All the talk about stars and super-teams and which team is better or was better or would be better disintegrated. I stopped thinking about all the problems with this team (saved for a future post). The night was about this Nuggets team, and these players, in this moment, battling and doing amazing things. And I felt waves of pride and appreciation, at once sure that they would win the game, and sure that it didn’t matter. What mattered was their effort, their guts, and their resolve. Then, I thought, man oh man, they really deserve three days off and a game against the Kings.

C.M. Jones