Thursday , Dec , 04 , 2003 C.Y. Ellis

Nuggets ready for a playoff run?

(Sports Network) – Who would believe that the Denver Nuggets are contenders
and not pretenders?

The Nuggets, who last appeared in the NBA playoffs in 1995 when they were
swept out of the first round in three games by the San Antonio Spurs, are
currently tied with Dallas Mavericks for first place in the Midwest Division
with a solid 12-6 record.

Is Denver, which finished a dismal 17-65 last season, teasing everybody with
its impressive start or is it the real deal?

It may be too soon to make a conclusion, but the early success stems from a
productive offseason. Nuggets general manager Kiki Vandeweghe selected phenom
Carmelo Anthony out of Syracuse with the third overall pick in the 2003 NBA
Draft and signed free agent guards Andre Miller, Jon Barry, Earl Boykins and
Voshon Lenard.

Was that enough for a team that finished the 2002-03 season tied with the
Cleveland Cavaliers for the worst record in the NBA?

Apparently it was.

Under second-year head coach Jeff Bzdelik, the new and improved Nuggets seem
primed to compete with the elite in the Western Conference and make a serious
run at the postseason.

The last time the Nuggets had recorded 12 wins after 18 games was in 1989-90,
when the team finished 43-39 and fell in three games to the Spurs in the first
round of the postseason.

“It means a lot,” Anthony told the Denver Post regarding the Nuggets’ strong
start. “As y’all (media) would say, ‘It’s early in the season’, we’ve still
got a long season to go. We’re doing good, man. We’ve just got to keep it up.”

The 19-year-old Anthony, who is the Nuggets leading scorer (18.3 ppg), is
proving to be mature beyond his years. He has become a leader as well as the
go-to guy for Denver, which was displayed in Tuesday’s 115-103 win over LeBron
James and the Cavaliers.

Anthony, who scored 21 of his game-high 26 points in the second half, was too
much for his close friend James and the Cavs, as he sparked a 10-0 run that
put the Nuggets up 11 midway through the fourth.

The Syracuse product answered a James three-pointer with a tip-in and moments
later, Anthony stole a pass and found Barry open in the lane for a lay-up that
helped Denver win its fourth straight game.

“Carmelo is a very special player,” Bzdelik said after the Cleveland game. “He
came through when it counted. We need to play as a team to win. As soon as you
start getting pats on the back, the kick in the butt is not far behind.”

Miller, 27, has proven to be the perfect fit for the Nuggets at point guard.
While leading the team in assists, Miller is also providing scoring and
defense for Denver.

Lenard has staked his claim to the starting spot at shooting guard. He scored
a career-high 38 points in Denver’s 117-109 victory over the Golden State
Warriors on Wednesday in Oakland. The 30-year-old veteran, who is deadly from
any spot on the floor, is currently third on the team in scoring.

Barry and Boykins have added depth to Bzdelik’s bench, as both players have
played significant minutes and are contributing consistently.

Combine the new acquisitions with second-year player Nene and a healthy Marcus
Camby, and all of a sudden the Nuggets have a formidable team, which plays
within itself and involves everyone in the game plan.

“We’re going to continue to try to play well and play as a team,” Lenard said.
“As long as we play as a team, we can beat just about anybody.”

Can the Nuggets outlast division rival Dallas over an 82-game season? Could
Denver knock off the Los Angeles Lakers in a seven-game series?

Probably not.

But the Nuggets are hungry and exciting, and are good enough to take the first
step, which is to finish as one of the top eight teams in the Western
Conference and earn their first playoff berth in almost a decade.