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Luhm: Nuggets looked like a contender before injury

Published April 6, 2013 1:55 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Thirty-six hours before Denver's season took a shocking and discouraging turn, I talked to coach George Karl after the Nuggets' shoot-around at EnergySolutions Arena.

At one point, I asked, "How good can your team be?"

Karl smiled.

"I think," he said before pausing to take a deep breath. "I think …"

Karl stopped again and looked around.

He was stalling — reporters know these things — as he tried to figure out how to answer my question without telling the whole truth.

"The only thing I can say," Karl eventually said, "is I like this team. I like how we play."

Denver had its mojo working overtime when it arrived in Utah for Wednesday night's game against the Jazz.

The Nuggets had won 16 of 18 games and emerged as a major threat to Western Conference favorites Oklahoma City and San Antonio as the playoffs approached.

They did it with a force-the-pace, spread-the-floor offense that creates lanes to the basket for a stable of athletes who are at their best when putting the ball on the floor.

"Our defense is better than we get credit for, too," Karl said. "Statistically, it doesn't rank very high. But we have ways to beat you, offensively and defensively."

The Nuggets also have chemistry — the hard-to-define quality that all legitimate contenders possess.

"We trust the pass more so than most teams," Karl said. "We believe in each other. Do we have the experience and mental side of the game, being the third-youngest team in the league? I don't know. That scares you a little bit. But our guys don't play scared."

The major knock against the Nuggets is their lack of a true star — the guy capable of winning games in the final minutes like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Tony Parker, Carmelo Anthony or Chris Paul.

Not so fast, says Karl.

According to the veteran coach, that's one of the Nuggets' most embraceable attributes.

"You don't know how we are going to beat you," Karl said. "I don't know who my horse is going to be tonight, so you can't know who my horse is going to be tonight."

After hinting his team had the right stuff to make a deep playoff run, the Nuggets demonstrated what Karl wouldn't exactly say. They looked like a championship team during a 113-96 victory over the Jazz.

"I think we can be very, very good," center Kosta Koufos said after the game. "We have so many assets on this team. Some skilled guards, bigs and wings and everybody contributes. Let's say somebody gets injured. There's another guy right behind him [capable of] playing big minutes."

Who could imagine what happened next?

After humbling the Jazz, the Nuggets returned to Denver and played Dallas on Thursday night. In the second quarter, they lost No. 2 scorer Danilo Gallinari with a torn ACL in his knee.

Without Gallinari, the Nuggets will need more from players like Corey Brewer, Wilson Chandler and Evan Fournier.

Even if they get it, however, Denver probably won't win the West.

Only one night before the injury, I thought that was the Nuggets' destiny, whether Karl wanted to say it or not.