Tuesday, May 19, 2009 Updated: May 20, 3:41 PM ET
'Lost' Nuggets looking for redemption
By J.A. Adande ESPN.com
Led by Chauncey Billups, the Denver Nuggets head into Hollywood on a mission: Upset the L.A. Lakers.
If you're already suffering from "Lost" withdrawal and worried that you can't last until the new season begins in 2010, the Western Conference finals are the perfect fill-in. The Denver Nuggets couldn't be more like "Lost" if they took chartered flights on Oceanic Airlines.
You want characters seeking to atone for their mistakes and reinvent their lives? Check the Nuggets.
"This is a team of redemption," Nuggets coach George Karl says. "This is not 1, 2, 3, this is 5, 6, 7 stories of redemption."
It's a group of castoffs, the unwanted. Carmelo Anthony is the only member of the team who stepped on stage with a Denver Nuggets cap to shake David Stern's hand on draft night -- and even he has been haunted by first-round playoff failures, perpetually running to catch up with his more accomplished mates in the class of 2003.
Everyone else is some other team's leftovers.
It's easy to draw the comparisons between the Nuggets and the "Lost" characters.
Kenyon Martin: Sawyer, the reformed bad boy who is now a team player. Karl gave Martin the boot in the middle of a playoff series three years ago. This year, Martin stepped up at a preseason meeting to apologize for his problematic past and commit to better behavior.
Chris Andersen: Charlie, the former drug abuser turned hero. After a two-year ban for violating the NBA's substance-abuse policy, Andersen is back to doing all the little things Denver needs, like rebounding and blocking shots. Not quite as valiant as sacrificing his life in an underwater communication station, but he gives the Nuggets everything he has on the court.
Dahntay Jones: Sayid, the defensive specialist, the type of guy you'd want to fix a radio, "coerce" information from someone, or guard Kobe Bryant.
Nene: Rose, a cancer survivor and steadying influence.
J.R. Smith: Kate, knows how to shoot, can definitely heat things up, but also a threat to burn down your house.
Allen Iverson: Michael, tended to do things on his own, and now isn't around anymore.
Carmelo is Jack, the leader by default who had to come to grips with his own insufficient ways to become a better person. Part of his growth was his willingness to yield to Chauncey Billups, who is a blend of Desmond and Faraday, newer arrivals on the show who wound up providing critical guidance.
It's not easy to hop on the bus in the middle of the trip and take the wheel. Billups wasn't around for training camp. Then again, he also wasn't there for the Nuggets' string of early exits over the years. While they were losing in the first round, Billups was in Detroit, going to the conference finals six straight years. Make it seven. That's what gave him the credibility.
Nothing about Billups' athletic abilities jumps out at you when you watch him, but talk to players and they'll tell you his hidden asset is his strength. He's just as strong in the huddle and the locker room.
"My whole thing was, I was just going to be me and not worry about taking too much of the responsibility," Billups says. "I was just going to be me. I'm a leader by nature. It pretty much just worked itself out.
"It's tough for some people, but my whole thing was, I know these guys wanted to win. That's one thing I know how to do, is win. I don't do it all the time, but I'm trying to. Walking through a bunch of different situations throughout the season, us getting better throughout the season, my leadership just kind of showed up."
Give Anthony credit, too. Like Jack, he recognized that doing it his way all the time wasn't bringing the desired results. So he was man enough to listen to other ideas.
"It was a matter of me and everybody else putting the ball in [Billups'] hands and saying, 'Do what you've got to do,'" Anthony says. "Everybody bought into him being the point guard, him being our leader."
"Lost" is up to its tiki torches in leaders. Different leaders at different times. Different leaders for different sides. Which brings us to the Nuggets' main leader, George Karl. He's Locke, perhaps the central character on the show.
Karl has found a new path to confidence and serenity, like Locke after he arrived on the island. Karl calls it "my mellowness," and at times he can sound almost Phil Jacksonian when he does things like talk about his team's "quiet happiness."
Karl is partly responsible (assisted by a profane challenge from assistant Tim Grgurich last summer) for the team's more defensive-minded approach this season, which started with an emphasis on D for the first half hour of every practice. Among the payoffs: the Nuggets have forced 16.4 turnovers per game in the postseason, the most of any team.
Karl, like Locke, believes in destiny, one that is set in motion by your beliefs.
"Your spirit, your thoughts, your heart, direct what you become," Karl says.
Destiny versus free will is a question that's as pivotal to this series as it is to "Lost."
"Lost" began as a show about the lives of its characters, but every indication is that the final season will examine how they fit into the grander scheme of the island. They could be nothing more than a version of bowling pins, constantly knocked down and reset (in a new form) for the next frame. There are greater forces at work.
It's hard to go against the machinations the NBA sets in motion. Plenty of players and coaches believe the matchups are preordained. It sure felt that way when the Lakers and Celtics met last season. Can anything overcome the marketing momentum of Lakers and Cavaliers, Kobe and LeBron meeting in the NBA Finals? It might take a nuclear weapon to deter that inevitable matchup. Hmmm...
The Nuggets have played the best basketball in the Western Conference during the playoffs. They've had two slipups, but no complete letdowns the way the Lakers have in their past two road games. The Nuggets unleashed an epic beatdown on the New Orleans Hornets in the first round, equal to the biggest blowout in playoff history. They have an array of inside attackers and defenders in Martin, Nene and Andersen. They have Melo, who will be hard for the Lakers to keep in check. The Lakers' main weapon, Kobe Bryant, has not been his usual franchise-carrying, ultimate closer self in every game.
And yet, playing at home seems to make L.A. big man Pau Gasol tougher and Trevor Ariza and the Lakers' reserves more active. The Lakers do have home-court advantage in this series. There will be no time-traveling to the past to change that outcome.
The tone of a playoff series shifts dramatically whenever a team wins on the road or wins two games in a row.
"My vision is we get the first two swings," Karl says. "We want to open up the window of opportunity for our fans to energize us."
Already there are all sorts of theories floating around the Internet about how "Lost" will turn out. The conference finals have far fewer possibilities. At least not when it comes to Karl's prediction for his team.
"We're going to challenge ourselves to be what we can be, the best we can be," Karl says. "And if someone beats us, I think that's what you'll write: They beat us."
The first episode is Tuesday night (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET). And the best thing about sports is there are no spoilers.
J.A. Adande is an ESPN.com senior writer and the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." Click here to e-mail J.A.