1. Nuggets Shaping Up As Tough Playoff Foe
ESPN Los Angeles
LOS ANGELES -- There were 15 seconds left, Denver was holding a two-point lead and George Karl's mind wandered back two years to the Nuggets' loss to the Lakers in the Western Conference finals.
"I thought about it with the inbounds play," the Nuggets coach said.
Danilo Gallinari was able to get the ball in from out of bounds this time around, successfully making the pass from the sidelines that Anthony Carter couldn't complete in Game 1 back in 2009 and Kenyon Martin couldn't pull off in Game 3, and Denver held on for a stirring 95-90 win Sunday.
Gallinari wasn't on Denver in 2009 and Trevor Ariza isn't on Los Angeles in 2011. But the fact that the Nuggets gained the guy to make the pass and the Lakers lost the guy to make the steal is just the tucking back of the ears in the major face-lift the Lakers-Nuggets matchup has undergone.
When Carmelo Anthony, who averaged 27.5 points per game in the conference finals against L.A., was traded it seemed like basketball fans had lost one of the more entertaining rivalries over the past several seasons. It turns out it might have changed for the better.
Denver has now won 15 of 19, staying right there with the Lakers (who have won 17 of 19) as the hottest team in the league post All-Star break, adding L.A. to the pile of pelts it's already collected from San Antonio and Boston in the last six weeks. Maybe the better term for post All-Star break is post "The Melo Situation," as Karl described the four months of will-he or won't-he that the team went through this season before sending Anthony to New York on Feb. 22.
If the Lakers are able to catch the Spurs for the No. 1 seed in the West (they're 2½ games back with six to play including one against San Antonio) and the Nuggets are able to stick as the No. 5 seed and knock off the No. 4-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, L.A. would have an out-of-nowhere rematch with Denver on its hands.
"They're a versatile team," said Pau Gasol. He finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds, but was reminded by a hard foul by Nene in the third quarter that as different as the Nuggets have become, they still have that nasty streak. "They have a lot of guys that can contribute in different ways and they share the ball. They have a lot of guys that can score 10-plus points and they do that well. They're a dangerous team."
Four players scored 12 points or more for Denver, led by Gallinari with 22, as the team that leads the league in scoring at 107.5 points per game proved once again that you don't need one guy to do all the damage. Gallinari, who paces the Nuggets with 15.8 points per game, doesn't even rank in the top 50 in the NBA in scoring average.
"You look at their lineup; they essentially have two starting fives," said Kobe Bryant, who scored 28 points but needed 27 shots to get there, going 10-for-27 from the field. "That second group that comes off the bench, that's a legitimate starting five in this league ... They're just deeper. They're deeper. That's really all there is to it."
That depth was apparent Sunday as Arron Afflalo, perhaps Denver's most consistent player on both sides of the ball, sat with a strained hamstring. The Nuggets didn't just miss his 12.6 points-per-game average, but he's also "kind of been their guy" to guard Bryant, according to Karl.
They stuck Wilson Chandler on Bryant instead and Karl said his defense on Bryant was "as good as we can get."
If you're going to even think about beating L.A., you better have a couple players who are up to the challenge of containing Kobe. Denver was also missing Chris Andersen, who was out with a sprained right ankle. He always manages to pester the Lakers' bigs, but the Nuggets' stacked lineup showed again as Timofey Mozgov threw his 7-1, 260-pound body around in 15 active minutes off the bench to collect five points and six rebounds in the Birdman's place.
Even though Lakers coach Phil Jackson said, "What [the Nuggets] do, I don't think there's anything that difficult for us that we shouldn't have been able to handle," Denver has the pieces to puzzle L.A.
There's the trio of speedsters in Ty Lawson, J.R. Smith and Raymond Felton that could give the Lakers' transition D trouble the way that Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant & Co. on the Thunder did last spring. The three helped force 20 Lakers turnovers Sunday.
And there's the big bodies in Kenyon Martin, Nene, Andersen and Mozgov to offer some resistance against the Lakers' length and athleticism in the paint. Martin had 18 points and eight rebounds Sunday, including a game-clinching putback to put Denver up by five with 11 seconds left that came from him pushing Lamar Odom out of the way to board a missed free throw.
"That's a foul," said Jackson. "He just steamrolled Lamar underneath."
Maybe it was, but the bigger picture is that Martin played physical enough to make something happen against the Lakers' superior size.
Denver shot just 29.5 percent and trailed by seven at halftime to a Lakers team that came in riding a season-high nine-game winning streak. Rather than pack it in, the Nuggets rallied.
"The stage that we played tonight is a prelim to the playoffs," Karl said. "I just think there's a mental toughness to the team that no one knows ... I feel that we're going to be fine in that area when it comes to playoff basketball."
Karl was asked if he'd relish a chance at playing the Lakers in the postseason again.
"Why not? [With] my team right now it's, 'What are we going to become?'"
What they already are is a potential second-round scare waiting for L.A.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
2. Heat Snooze But Do Not Lose
LeBron James disagrees.
To him, it's not Boston the Heat is most concerned about over the season's stretch run.
"Being complacent," James said Sunday as the Heat sleepwalked their way, at times, through a 108-94 victory over the lottery-bound New Jersey Nets. "As long as we don't get complacent, we're good going into the postseason in two weeks. It's all about not being complacent. We're trying to get better, no matter who we're playing -- whether it's New Jersey, Boston, Orlando or Toronto."
On Sunday, it was the Nets.
And no matter how many nifty crossovers and nice passes Deron Williams made on his way to 12 assists and 18 points, or how many times his team flirted with making a game out of what was a decisive mismatch from the moment Sasha Vujacic lined up to guard LeBron, the Nets had a difficult time keeping the Heat interested and motivated.
Even in wrapping up its eighth division title with Sunday's victory, Miami is far from a fine-tuned machine going into the playoffs. But when a season reaches this stage, specifically when New Jersey is final stop on a four-game trip to face teams that were a combined 154 games below .500 on Sunday, it could be difficult to focus on the finish line.
Case in point: The Heat sprinted out to a 21-point lead in the first half on Sunday and should have put the Nets away. Instead, James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh spent the rest of the game battling boredom and stretches of complacency.
3. Daily Dime Live Recap
Zach Harper, TrueHoop Network bloggers and fans give their in-game opinions on all topics throughout Sunday's slate of NBA roundball talk in Daily Dime Live.
4. Extreme Behavior
Nuggets: Regrets? They don't have a few -- perhaps the only one Denver has now is not making the Melo deal earlier. A balanced attack with strong up-front performances from K-Mart, Danilo Gallinari and Nene is among the encouraging signs with the playoffs approaching.
Ben Gordon, now and then: Shoots 1-for-7 in a declining bench role for the moribund Pistons, who lost to Boston 101-90. Two years ago, he averaged 24.3 ppg in a seven-game series with Boston that nearly sent the then-defending champs packing in the first round.
TWEET OF THE NIGHT
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
"I just hope he's all right. ... It felt like just having his presence out there was big."
-- Paul Pierce on the brief return of Shaq.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Knicks Clinch Playoff Berth
ESPN New York.com
NEW YORK -- In the confines of the New York Knicks' locker room after they did something they hadn't done in seven years, Mike D'Antoni singled out one player whose hand he especially wanted to shake.
It was the player who started the Knicks' current resurgence way back in the first week of last July, back before "The Decision" had been made (and became infamous), before the possibility of trading for Carmelo Anthony was even on anyone's radar, before this season of highs, lows, fits and starts was anywhere near beginning.
That player was Amare Stoudemire, who sat in his corner locker stall as D'Antoni approached, and stuck out his right hand to receive the congratulatory gesture.
"I think he was very appreciative that I was strong enough to come here in a situation where it wasn't looking great, and secondly to take the challenge upon myself, and us as a team, to speak so bold at the start of the year about the Knicks were back. And now to finally be in a position where we're now in the playoffs," Stoudemire said, "we're in a position to think we can do something special."
The Knicks qualified for the playoffs Sunday evening by defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers 123-107 in a game in which they blew all but two points of a 22-point lead, then turned up the intensity down the stretch to pull away from a team that had defeated them three times this season despite having the worst record in the NBA.
7. Five Good Minutes
8. Road Trip's Wrong Turn
PORTLAND, Ore. -- The Dallas Mavericks want to be perceived a skilled, veteran team that knows how to win.
They look like an old, tired team that's running on fumes, completely lacking confidence, chemistry and any other intangible ingredient necessary to make a playoff run. To put it in plain and simple terms, the Mavs are an absolute mess at the point of the season when they want to be peaking.
That was true before the Mavs left on the season's longest road trip. It's painfully obvious as the Mavs prepare to make the long flight home from Portland, packing a three-game losing streak and the baggage of being bullied by two potential playoff opponents.
"Nothing against the wife and the kids," Jason Terry said before the Mavs left on the six-game, 10-day journey, "but this is time for us to get some chemistry back and get our swagger back and build up some confidence on the road."
That plan worked out about as well as the Mavs' small-ball lineup in the second quarter against Portland, when the Trail Blazers scored 38 points. That was pretty much the knockout punch against a Dallas squad playing its fourth game in five nights.
Don't be deceived by the 104-96 score. This game was only that close because Rodrigue Beaubois got red hot during garbage time, when he scored half of his 18 points. The Trail Blazers delivered a butt-kicking, the second time the Mavs left a building with bruised behinds in the last few games.
9. Bench To The Rescue
The Spurs snapped their six-game losing streak thanks to George Hill (29 points), Matt Bonner (16) and Gary Neal (15), who posted San Antonio's top three point totals, all off the bench. It was the second time this season that the Spurs played a game in which their top three scorers, outright, were all nonstarters. It happened just over two weeks ago in a victory over the Bobcats. Prior to that, San Antonio had won only two games in that fashion in its NBA history.• More from Elias