- Scott Larrick
- Big Mac, putting on the hurt as NBA Player of the week
Hakeem Olajuwon. Patrick Ewing. Allen Iverson. The Denver Nuggets are making them look like they aren't the players they used to be. The fact is, however, the Nuggets are not the team they once were.
They haven't had a winning season since 1993, but they're two games over .500, having won seven of their last 10 games and posting a season-long home record of 8-3. After propelling Nuggets forward Antonio McDyess to NBA Player of the Week status and convincingly defeating the Philadelphia 76ers -- owners of the league's best record -- the distant crest of the long uphill climb back into the playoff hunt may well be in sight.
The Denver fans aren't exactly overwhelming. In the tense fourth quarter of a one-point game, the only sound in the arena was the squeaking of sneakers as the players put the good moves on from baseline to baseline. No, if there's a home court advantage in "The Can," the fans are not the difference.
"I think the altitude plays a pretty big factor," point guard Nick Van Exel told the Indy after Monday's victory over the 76ers. "Our guys shoot a lot better here. We're a little more patient. On the road we take some crazy shots, and you can't do that. On the road you got to play a little more in control."
Van Exel came up big for the Nuggets in the three game stretch, shouldering the burden of containing visiting offensive weapons like Iverson, Gary Payton and Steve Francis. On Saturday night, he held Seattle's Payton to 14 points, 10 points below his season average, while dishing out an NBA season high 20 assists to his Nugget teammates.
"I've never seen as dominating a performance as Nick had tonight shooting 2 for 7," Nuggets coach Dan Issel said of Van Exel's defensive performance. "Gary has gotten the better of that matchup in the past, but I'd say tonight's fight went to Nick."
And he was just getting warmed up. Against the 76ers, Van Exel scored 17 points and 10 assists while challenging Iverson and overcoming the league's best early-in-the-season team.
"When the game's on the line," Issel said of the nailbiting final moments when Van Exel dominated the court against Philadelphia, "I don't want the ball in anybody else's hands but Nick's."
Big Mac attack
The story of the week, however -- and perhaps the story of the untold season -- is the exceptional play of McDyess. Fresh from a gold medal stint on the U.S. Olympic basketball team, McDyess is playing with the confidence and power of the game's elite.
McDyess is no David Thompson, but every now and then he brings an air show to the Pepsi Center. Thursday night he scored the go-ahead points on an inbounds alley-oop with 7.4 seconds left on the clock. A bum call sent Houston to the free-throw line and the game into overtime, but the play energized the crowd with the kind of electricity long absent from Nuggets games. Even Issel was jumping for joy on the sidelines. Despite the overtime loss, McDyess did what only one NBA player -- Shaquille O'Neal -- has done since 1990. He scored 40 points and pulled in 20 rebounds in a single game.
Big Mac is an unusually modest player in his sixth NBA season and teetering on the verge of superstardom. "Mac's never going to be a rah rah guy," Coach Issel pointed out. "You're never gonna get a swagger out of Mac. But if he keeps like he has the last two games he's going to be able to take us a long way this year."
- Scott Larrick
- Nick Van Exela ball in his hands is worth a victory
He rarely sheds the game face he wears to stand up to the likes of Olajuwon and Ewing, but back in the shelter of the locker room, McDyess breaks into a bashful grin, an irrepressible but half-pained smile, mixing a personal highlight with a heartbreaking team loss.
"It's tough to swallow," he admits. "We were really looking forward to coming home tonight and getting a big win." Showing his resiliency, he came back against Seattle and scored 37 points and 17 rebounds.
"He's in a zone right now," Issel said after dispensing of the Sonics. "We're going to ride him as far as he'll take us."
"I feel like I'm unstoppable," McDyess said, surprising even himself. "I'm getting the ball and making a lot happen. I'm staying out of foul trouble. Staying in the game. I'm thinking a lot better now. A lot smarter."
Taking a cue from a coach who exudes basketball's balance of power and class, McDyess dismissed the onslaught of accolades and media attention his big week attracted. "I feel good being named Player of the Week," he admitted, "but it's over now and it's the start of a new week. I just have to continue to go out there and keep continuing to play hard."
Don't rock the boat
This is an even-keeled Nuggets team. While the locker room seems somber in defeat -- with George McCloud looking downcast as he soaked his foot in an industrial size mop bucket full of ice and Voshon Lenard contorted himself under the trainer's supervision in the middle of the locker room floor--the atmosphere is remarkably similar after a win.
Although Issel grew looser and looser on the court over the homestand, taking time to joke during the time outs, laughing with the refs, the opposing coaches and a fan or two, he never let the team's momentary successes get to his head.
"We're getting better," Issel said after posting a second consecutive victory to take on the road trip. "If you play on both ends of the floor and you play hard, the wins will take care of themselves."
Van Exel dismissed any notion that the success at the Pepsi Center meant the team had arrived at the threshold of the league's elite. "We pretty much expect to win at home, no matter who comes in here. But if we want to get to that next level, we've got to win on the road. The road is where we struggle."
The shortcomings in the Nuggets loss to Houston were glaring, and the need for a more balanced attack was lost on no one. "We wasted an excellent performance," Issel said after the deflating Houston game. "We couldn't find a second guy to step up." Over the next two games, Lenard, Van Exel, and the ready-to-bust-out third-year center Raef LaFrentz all rose to the task, joining McDyess Monday night in a rare four-way double-double.
"I think we're playing pretty well," Issel allowed. "I think we've got pretty good momentum on this road trip." If the Nuggets can make their road foes look half as vulnerable as the big guns that visited Denver this week, this new model machine will be road-tested and ready to roll.
"We're looking forward to going to the playoffs," McDyess proclaimed. "I know it's early right now, but if we continue to play as well as we're playing right now and playing as good a defense as we're playing ... the sky's the limit for this team."