By Chad Ford
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Monday, March 22
Updated: March 22
10:24 AM ET
Every good story has to come to an end. The Nuggets' Cinderella run at an improbable playoff berth in the Wild, Wild West may have ended in Detroit on Friday night, when rookie Carmelo Anthony acted like a rookie for the first time this season.
Anthony, bristling at the critiques from veteran teammates like Marcus Camby and Andre Miller, pulled himself out of the game with 6:02 left and refused to go back in, despite the pleadings of his coach and teammates.
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The Nuggets' dream season was on the ropes, and Carmelo was delivering the knockout blow. The team went on to be blown out by the Pistons (ironically the team that passed on him in the draft) and his teammates were left wondering how to pick up the pieces.
"I apologized for quitting," Anthony told the Denver Post on Saturday. "That's not me. That's not me. ... I never did that a day in my life."
Camby and Miller had questioned Anthony's shot selection in successive time outs. The criticism stung Carmelo to the core.
"I was just thinking, 'Why now? Why now?"' Anthony said. "I think sometimes everybody gets caught up in the moment. Marcus doesn't ever complain about nothing. He said what he had to say, I took it in and I kept on playing. But once you've got everybody questioning your shot selection ...
"Everybody was just coming down on me. That's all I heard. When I came to the huddle I could hear everyone saying, 'We're shooting ourselves in the foot.' It was just building up.
"Frustration just took over," he added. "It totally took over me (Friday). I thought I was playing good. I was out there trying to do anything. And for someone to reward me with I'm shooting too much? It just gets frustrating."
His teammates and coach rallied to his defense on Saturday. Both Miller and Camby publicly said that they support their young star -- they just want him to keep improving.
Said Camby: "He'll be OK (today). He got 20 (shots). We're going to him. With that comes responsibility."
Coach Jeff Bzdelik was even more forgiving. "He is a terrific young man who has shouldered a lot of responsibility," Bzdelik told the Post. "He was man enough to acknowledge to his teammates that he made a mistake. Now we move on. What is important is what lies ahead.
"To be honest with you, we wouldn't be where we are today if it weren't for this young man."
The Nuggets' run this season has been amazing. The team has played so far above its head . . . there's nothing to be ashamed of during its recent 5-12 stretch since the All-Star break. The Nuggets, for the most part, lost to better teams. This team is not melting down as much as it's coming back to Earth.
In October I stood in the Nuggets' weight room with GM Kiki Vandeweghe and talked about his expectations for this season. Playoffs never entered into the conversation. Talk of 35 wins sounded almost crazy at the time given the tough competition in the West and the Nuggets' lowly 17 wins last season.
Under almost every scenario the Nuggets will finish the season with a winning record. Tell that to anyone in Denver at the start of the season and folks would've ordered up a parade.
The scary thing in Denver is that with a ton of cap room to use this summer, the Nuggets are only going to keep getting better.
Still, their playoff chances appear pretty bleak. With just 11 games to go in the regular season, the Nuggets, for the first time all season, are on the outside looking in.
Another huge loss on Sunday put them a half game behind the Jazz for the eighth playoff seed in the West. It is arguably the only one left up for grabs. The Rockets have the seventh seed, but are a comfortable four games ahead of the Jazz.
Things don't look good for the rest of the season. The Nuggets, along with the Jazz and Blazers, are in virtual three-team tie for that last spot. Who will secure the last playoff spot? Insider took a look at the schedules and recent trends, and based on the evidence, it looks like the Jazz will nab the last playoff spot in the West.
Here's how we break it down:
8. Utah Jazz
Current record: 36-34
Projected record: 43-39
Skinny: Another Cinderella story that looks like it will have a happier ending. The Jazz have several things going in their favor. Seven of their last 12 are at home. They also have the easiest schedule of the remaining three teams. Seven of the 12 teams they face are currently playoff teams. However, the Jazz only have to face three of those seven team on the road. A home game against the Nuggets on Saturday will be huge. The Jazz are 0-3 versus the Nuggets this season and will need that win to keep ahead of them in the playoff race. If the two teams tie, the Nuggets own the first tie breaker.
9. Denver Nuggets
Current record: 36-35
Projected record: 42-40
Skinny: The Nuggets are in such a funk right now it's tough to see them turning things around to catch the Jazz. The team has six home games left and five on the road. The good news is that it gets three beatable teams on the road -- Seattle, Utah and Phoenix. The bad news is that it has to play home games against the T-Wolves, Rockets, Blazers and Kings down the stretch. The Nuggets have to win at least two road games and at least two of those four tough home games to catch the Jazz. That's really asking a lot.
10. Portland Trail Blazers
Current record: 35-34
Projected record: 42-40
Skinny: The Blazers have 13 games remaining and only seven are against playoff-bound teams. The team has been 11-7 since the All-Star break and is playing the best basketball of the three right now. Can it catch up to the Jazz? The Blazers will have two key stretches that will determine their fate. Next week they go on a three-game East Coast road trip. They play the Knicks, Celtics and 76ers during the trip. If they can sweep those three (before you just give them the games remember that the Blazers are just 13-22 on the road this year), they'll be in very good shape. Another big game will be in Denver on April 10th. Like the Jazz, the Blazers are 0-3 versus Denver this year and need the win to stave them off. If the two teams end the season with a tie, the Nuggets win the tie breaker. The last four games of the season (at San Antonio, at Denver, home versus the Spurs and Lakers) are a killer.
Around the League
Remember how, just a few weeks ago, the national debate on the Rookie of the Year award seemed to be turning on who could lead his cellar team into the playoffs?
At the time, the argument coming loud and voraciously from the Carmelo Anthony camp was that Melo should get the award because he turned the worst team in the league into a playoff contender?
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The LeBron James camp shot back that LeBron was doing more on a less-talented team. Carmelo had Andre Miller, Marcus Camby, Nene Hilario, Voshon Lenard and Jon Barry. LeBron had just Carlos Boozer, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and . . . Eric Williams?
It sure hasn't taken long for both camps to switch scripts.
As of Monday, in a stunning reversal, it's LeBron's Cavs holding on (precariously) to an eighth seed in the East. Meanwhile, out West, another disastrous loss for the Nuggets actually knocked them out of the top eight for the first time all season.
It's a tale of two teams going in opposite directions.
The Cavs are 11-5 since the All-Star break and seem destined to take one of the bottom three playoff spots in the East. The Nuggets are 5-11 since the break and seem unable to stop the bleeding.
Now, here's the catch. Since the break it's been Carmelo, not James, putting up the better numbers. Melo is averaging 24.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg and 3.4 apg on 44 percent shooting. James' numbers are close -- 21.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.2 apg on 44 percent shooting -- but not quite up to Melo's.
Now Melo's camp is arguing that his dominating play since the break should be enough for Melo to take home the trophy -- playoffs or no playoffs. Melo's camp is also pointing out that even if the Nuggets don't nail down a playoff berth, the team will finish with a better record in a tougher conference.
What's LeBron's rebuttal? That he's doing the impossible right now -- leading the lowly Cavs to the playoffs after the team stripped away two of its most talented pieces -- Ricky Davis and Darius Miles.
Who's going to come out on top? My money's still on LeBron, who has one big advantage over Melo -- he's made zero mistakes off the court this season. Melo's had a couple that will come back to haunt him. His dig about Andrei Kirilenko and the All-Star game can be written off to immaturity in a frustrating moment. But his refusal to come back into a game after teammates questioned his shot selection? That's going to haunt him for a while. . . . just ask Scottie Pippen, Melo.
Could the Mavs slip to six? The Mavs' porous defense isn't the only problem they face over the next 13 games. They also face a mildly rigorous schedule going into the home stretch with road games against the Pacers, Heat and Rockets and home games against the Cavs, Kings and Grizzlies. That's certainly not going to derail their playoff hopes, but it could bump them to a sixth seed in the West if the Grizzlies keep playing well.
The Grizzlies, unfortunately, play eight of their last 13 on the road. The good news for the Grizz is, of those eight road games, only four are against teams with a winning record. They have two rough, but winnable home games against the T-Wolves and Rockets. The key moment for both teams will probably come on April 13th when the Grizzlies travel to Dallas for a huge showdown. The Grizzlies lead the head-to-head series 2-1 and have given the Mavs problems with their explosive offense and deep, deep bench.
If the Grizzlies can win that game on the road, expect them to pass the Mavs into the fifth seed, leaving the Mavs with either the Lakers, T-Wolves or Spurs in round one. The Mavs have had the most success against the Lakers this season, but they don't want to face them in a seven-game series without home-court advantage.
Blogmaverick.com: Speaking of the Mavs, Mark Cuban is now wearing yet another hat in the Mavericks franchise. In addition to being the team's owner, defacto GM, sometimes assistant coach and biggest cheerleader -- he's now trying his hand at covering the Mavs in the media. Cuban's new web site, blogmaverick.com, gives readers his daily take on all things NBA with an occasional stock tip or two.
I'm hooked. Cuban's first entry attacked Chicago Tribune columnist (and president of the Basketball Writers Association) Sam Smith. Cuban confessed that he "can't stand" Smith and at one point in his piece called him a "malicious liar."
The next day he took local columnist Kevin Blackistone to task for taking a quote (via e-mail) out of context in his Dallas Morning News column. The quote, about Cuban's comments to Josh Howard, ended up getting Cuban fined $10,000.
Blackistone wrote that Cuban told Howard to retaliate against Bowen after Bowen gave a hard foul to Michael Finely and the two got into it. However, Cuban printed his e-mail to Blackistone in full and it seems pretty clear that Cuban's "advice" to Howard came before the Finley-Bowen fight. Tough to call something a "bounty" before the incident ever happens.
Here's what Cuban wrote to Blackistone via e-mail:
"I spoke to him in a break after Bowen had got up underneath Josh and was slapping at him when he had the ball. It could be argued whether it was a legal guarding position or not, but that's why I told Josh to legally use a ball swipe to clear space. This was going to be a physical game and -- because he was the rookie -- he could be the one that got the tech and I would pay the fine for it. Josh is certainly not the type to back down from anyone, but all players get confused from time to time trying to figure out how a game is going to be called. I knew exactly how this game was going to be called once it got going, and that is why I said something to Josh."
Cuban went on to claim that Blackistone's column would likely get him fined and sure enough . . . the next day the league nailed Cuban with a $10,000 fine. Why? Here's Cuban's take.
"In my conversation with the NBA's Rick Buchanan, who really is a good guy in a thankless job, he told me I was being fined because I told the media what I had told Josh Howard. I wasn't being fined because of what I said to Josh. Merely because I had told the media what I had told Josh.
"What will once again be fun is to watch how the media covers the fine. They of course will write and report that I am being fined for 'putting out a bounty on Bruce Bowen,' which of course I never did, but works a whole lot better in a story. Or some of the more responsible reporters will write that I was fined for my 'comments to Josh Howard in response to the Bowen/Finley altercation,' which of course is incorrect as well. Think anyone will report that I was fined because I commented to the media? Me neither."
After the media, predictably, took the bounty angle, Cuban decided to quit talking to the media altogether and just let his blog do the talking. (At least for the day).
Talk about shameless promotion. After essentially pushing everyone to his Web site looking for an explanation, he spent the next few days promoting a movie he's producing -- "Godsend" -- with Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Greg Kinnear and Robert De Niro (Cuban thinks Rebecca's hot) and his new reality TV series -- "The Benefactor."
Sunday's report was better, including a breakdown of referee tendencies that he's been watching . . . but what we really want to know is . . . how long before Mark picks up the clipboard and replaces Nellie at the end of the bench?
Kobe Gone, Part XXIV? According to the L.A. Times, Kobe's teammates believe that he's leaving the Lakers this summer. His teammates also believe that the Knicks are the most likely destination for Kobe. That's tougher to swallow. With no cap space and no one the Lakers would want in a sign-and-trade (Kobe for Allan Houston, are you kidding?) Kobe is going to have to take a major, major pay cut or he's not coming to New York.
Warriors ready to screw up again? How messed up is the Warriors organization? Garry St. Jean is still the GM, Chris Mullin is in the running to replace him despite green lighting the Nick Van Exel for Antawn Jamison trade (remember when Mullen claimed that Nick would lead the Warriors to the playoffs?) and the team is thinking about sacking coach Eric Musselman. Huh?
Musselman is the best thing that has happened to the Warriors in years. He hasn't managed the cap poorly (see St. Jean) or made the stupid trades (see Mullin) that have killed the Warriors. His team is well prepared and plays over its head most nights. Players have bristled at his "play-who's-producing" strategy this season but . . . when you're losing, someone has to do something. Hubie Brown is doing the same thing in Memphis and, with more talent and depth, it's working. Adonal Foyle's been Musselman's biggest critic . . . and if he has the power to get his coach fired then we know just how screwed up the Warriors are.
Recently, Musselman, when talking about the rash of coach firings in the league, had his own take on what's going on. Musselman was asked when a coach deserved to be fired.
"Maybe they never should be fired," he told the San Francisco Chronicle. "Maybe you should do a lot of research before you hire a guy, then you hire the right guy and when things don't go well, you look somewhere other than him."
The Warriors' woes aren't Musselman's fault. If they dump him this summer (he hasn't had his option picked up yet) he'll be hired in a minute somewhere else and the Warriors will be the big losers. As always.