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End Zone: Nuggets rekindle memories

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Even on the TV screen, the Pepsi Center's atmosphere Sunday afternoon was already overflowing with electric emotion in the moments before the Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks tipped off their NBA Western Conference semifinal series.

And then the Mile High City's own living legend took the microphone to finish the lineup introductions. Wearing a very large Nuggets jersey, and in his unmistakable raspy voice, John Elway shouted:

"The new No. 7 in Denver, Colorado — Chauncey Billups!"

It was perfect theater, perfect timing, the perfect weapon to unleash a huge, howling, inspiring roar. But then, everything about the Denver Nuggets in recent months has been as close to perfect as the state's pro basketball fans have seen in decades.

Billups, the Denver native and point guard who came back to the Nuggets last November in the trade that finally ended Allen Iverson's underachieving saga, was overwhelmed by the attention from one of his childhood idols. But that should come as no surprise to anyone who has kept up with the latest No. 7 to grab Colorado's heart. The smooth point guard has become the floor leader Denver needed, and the classy example that many of his teammates needed.

In fact, the Nuggets have elevated their collective game — especially their defense — so far in the past six months that they thumped Dallas in the series opener despite Billups scoring only six points and again Tuesday night when Billups couldn't make a shot until the second half. Head coach George Karl has done a masterful job of nurturing one of the league's better benches, which means Denver is anything but a tired team at this point.

The beauty of the situation now is that the Nuggets somehow have made it this far as the NBA's best-kept secret. To the rest of America, the Western Conference is a foregone conclusion: It's the Los Angeles Lakers and nobody else, despite Houston threatening to force an interesting series.

Obviously, the Nuggets are fine with that. All they do is hustle on both ends, mesh well no matter what combination Karl uses, and dominate the fourth quarter.

How far can they go? They match up well against Dallas, though this series could last a while if the Mavs awaken on their court.

But this Denver team also looks capable of challenging the Lakers, with Nené, Kenyon Martin, Carmelo Anthony and Dahntay Jones playing their roles, Billups running the show and the bench (J.R. Smith, Chris "Birdman" Andersen, Anthony Carter, Linas Kleiza) doing its part.

As long as everyone among that group stays healthy, the Nuggets can go far. But sometimes bad luck intervenes, as was the case with the last Denver team to make this much postseason noise.

That was in 1984-85, when the Nuggets also won their division and made it to the conference final — also against the almighty Lakers, led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and James Worthy. Nobody gave Denver a chance back then, either, but coach Doug Moe played the psychology game perfectly.

Ironically, that Denver team also benefited from having traded away a star player, as Kiki Vandeweghe had been sent to Portland for the threesome of forward Calvin Natt, point guard Lafayette "Fat" Lever and center Wayne Cooper. Those three newcomers fit seamlessly on a roster that also included Dan Issel (36 at the time, in what turned out to be his final season) along with scorer Alex English, defensive whiz T.R. Dunn, swingman Bill Hanzlik, backup center Danny Schayes and hot-shooting Mike Evans.

When the Nuggets stunned the Lakers at Los Angeles, 136-114, in Game 2, with English scoring 40 points, the nation took notice. Not surprisingly, L.A. proceeded to take Game 3 in Denver, and Lever was lost by then with a bad knee. Then came the pivotal fourth game, which was tight entering the final minutes — until English went down with a foot injury. Instead of Denver pulling out another victory to make it 2-2 going back to California, the Lakers escaped with a 120-116 win to go up 3-1, and a few nights later (with English sidelined) they finished off the Nuggets. But without those injuries, it could have been much different.

Now, 24 years later, the Nuggets have a chance again. They have the stars, the depth, the momentum — and the "new" No. 7.

If they can hold all that together, who knows?

routon@csindy.com

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