For Now, Nuggets Are Dantley's Team
DENVER -- This is Adrian Dantley's team now.
Denver coach George Karl, undergoing chemotherapy and radiation for a form of throat cancer, missed his sixth game out of the last seven in Saturday night's 102-97 loss to Milwaukee at the Pepsi Center. But there was one major difference this time.
Dantley didn't even talk with Karl on Saturday. And a Nuggets official said the ailing Karl is not expected to be with the team for any games during a pivotal upcoming five-game trip, meaning Karl will have missed 11 of 12 at a time the Nuggets are trying to hold off Dallas for the No. 2 seed in the West and Utah for the Northwest Division crown.
"He's going through treatment and was down so I didn't talk to him,'' Dantley, an assistant and the acting head coach said of Saturday, when the Nuggets lost just their sixth home game of the season to a team that had played a double-overtime game the night before at Sacramento while Denver rested.
But the Bucks are a playoff outfit. Yes, Dantley is 5-2 filling in for Karl during his absences over the past month, but Milwaukee is the first likely playoff-bound team he has faced.
Now, it's just going to get tougher for Dantley. The Nuggets (47-23) start their five-game trip Tuesday at New York, but then it really gets rigorous. The last four games are at Boston, Toronto, Orlando and Dallas, three playoff bound and the Raptors likely getting there.
The game with the Mavericks (46-23) figures to be pivotal to which team gets the No. 2 seed in the West and possible homecourt advantage in the second round of the playoffs. The winner takes the season series 2-1, getting the tiebreaker.
Furthermore, the Nuggets, who have the league's toughest remaining schedule, are still trying to hold off the Jazz (45-25) in the Northwest. And there's no guarantee either Oklahoma City (42-25) and Phoenix (43-26) can't knock the Nuggets out of one of the top four seeds if they falter down the stretch.
Who knows if Karl can help Dantley, who calls the trip a "big challenge,'' with any phone calls during it? After beginning a 6 1/2-week treatment program in mid-February, the last few weeks have always been expected to be the toughest.
Karl was on the bench last Tuesday against Washington, but his mouth was so sore he could barely talk. To understand how tough these days are for him, Karl elected not to meet the media in the past week, something the talkative Karl often has enjoyed doing and something that at times has been therapeutic.
"These are times when you just learn about the team, learn about the guys you've got,'' said Nuggets point guard and captain Chauncey Billups. "It's tough, man, without George. It's tough not having the leadership up top. A.D.'s doing a good job. He's doing a really good job but he just hasn't had a lot the head-coaching experience. You get used to hearing one voice, one dominant voice, and you grow accustomed to that. When it's gone, it's a little different.''
To make matters worse, the Nuggets will play this trip without rugged forward Kenyon Martin, who has been out indefinitely since beginning platelet-rich plasma treatment two weeks ago for tendinitis in his left knee.
There's still no timetable for when Martin might return considering it won't be until this week that doctors better learn if his treatment is going well. But nobody's counting on seeing Martin until early April at the soonest.
"Without Kenyon out there, it's just a hole defensively,'' Billups said. "I mean, it's just different without him. He's such a great presence out there defensively.''
Had the Nuggets, who dropped to 30-6 at home, been able to win Saturday, they would be heading East with much optimism. Instead, there's much uncertainty.
Yes, the Bucks (38-30) are one of the hottest teams in the NBA, having won 14 of 16. But they had to go into double overtime Friday in a 114-108 win at Sacramento before getting into Denver in the wee hours of Saturday morning.
"They got in at four in the morning, and they looked fresher than us,'' said Nuggets center Nene.
Dantley's post-game press conference then sounded like one big apology.
On the Bucks, who shot 9-of-21 from three-point range, Dantley said, "They had a lot of wide-open shots. I take responsibility for that. Guys shouldn't have open shots like that. I thought we went over everything defensively, but that just shouldn't happen.''
Speaking more about the loss, Dantley said, "We were fouling when we didn't have to. Our transition defense wasn't as good it should be. Like I said, I take responsibly for that. They had too many open jump shots. Maybe we just messed up on our concepts.''
At least give credit to Dantley for being a stand-up guy. But give less credit to Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony, who did not make himself available to the media after the game for one of the rare times since he overall has matured as a player.
Anthony tied Billups for game-high honors with 29 points, but shot just 10-of-29. He suffered a sprained left ring finger late in the first quarter, but returned to shoot just 7-of-25 in the last three quarters.
Put it all together and there has to be some apprehension for Nuggets fans as their team embarks on this pivotal voyage.
"I feel like this is a huge, huge trip for us,'' said Billups, who at least can expect to get his regular backup point guard, Ty Lawson, back Tuesday after he has missed 11 straight games due to a left shoulder contusion. "This next week is huge for us as far as positioning, as far as homecourt. It just means so much. It's not make or break, but, man, it's huge. It's huge. It's huge... It's big. It's big. It's as big as it gets outside of do or die.''
That's six huges and three bigs. So you know it's some kind of trip.
Stay tuned to see how the Nuggets stand after they return in a week and if Dantley needs to do much apologizing. After all, it will be his team during the trip.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter@christomasson