DENVER (AP) — The Denver Nuggets desperately wanted to make the playoffs to get their new young roster some experience under pressure.
In coach George Karl’s mind, they got a jumpstart on that.
Karl had his team treat the last seven regular season games as a playoff series, suggesting Denver had to win at least four to reach the postseason for a ninth straight season.
They won six, moving up the Western Conference ladder to the No. 6 seed and a first-round date with the Los Angeles Lakers instead of the resurgent San Antonio Spurs or the powerful Oklahoma City Thunder.
“I think it’s very impressive because if you consider all the injuries we had, all the trade stuff, a lot of things happened this year but we’re still here in the playoffs,” Danilo Gallinari said. “I thought we played a great season.”
Despite making the playoffs every season since 2003-04, the Nuggets have advanced out of the first round just once in that span, and many fans figure they’re first-round fodder again with a roster still getting used to JaVale McGee, who came over from Washington in the Nene trade, and several players still working their way back into shape after getting knocked out by injuries.
“I’m as disappointed as anybody that we haven’t had a better playoff record, but I’m also as proud as anybody to be one of three teams in this league that have gone to the playoffs” nine straight years, Karl said.
Karl said that against the Lakers, he wouldn’t shy away from playing two big men whose minutes have diminished of late: Timofey Mozgov, one of the players bothered by injuries, and Chris “Birdman” Andersen, who gave way to youngsters who needed more minutes down the stretch.
“I’m not afraid to play Bird or Timo at any time,” Karl said. “They’ve done great hanging in. Bird’s been dealt a bad hand. Timo, since his injury, Kosta (Koufos) has gotten the minutes to the point where I don’t want to take them away from Kosta.”
The Nuggets lost a lot of talented players from last year’s team, including Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith, and when training camp opened after the labor impasse was settled, Denver looked like a hodgepodge of YMCA players. But they jelled quickly and jumped out to a 14-6 record.
Then, the injuries struck, most notably to Gallinari, whose leg and thumb ailments kept him on the sideline for long stretches while the Nuggets languished before finishing strong.
“I don’t remember anybody really anxiously saying that we were going to be a playoff team before the season started,” Karl said. “Most people had dismissed us as probably we weren’t. I never backed away from the playoffs. I always thought we were going to be a playoff team and I think we can still have a chance to be a good playoff team.”
The Nuggets’ win over Minnesota on Thursday night ensured they wouldn’t face the Thunder again in the first round as they did last year, when they were eliminated by Kevin Durant & Co. in five games.
The Kobe Bryant-led Lakers are formidable even without Metta World Peace, who has to sit out L.A.’s first six playoff games for the elbow he delivered to James Harden’s head in a game against Oklahoma City on Sunday.
“The champion is yet to be determined,” Karl said. “It’s going to be determined in the first couple rounds of the playoffs. Someone is going to find their strut, find their confidence and they’re going to snowball some momentum into a championship.”
With rookie Kenneth Faried coming on strong, Arron Afflalo hitting his stride, Al Harrington coming through in the clutch and speedsters Ty Lawson and Corey Brewer altering the pace, the Nuggets finished 38-28 and on the upswing.
“I just have to do what I have been doing: basically, run the floor and rebound the ball,” Faried said. “I need to focus and continue to grind. We have to use our speed versus their size.”
Denver enters the playoffs Sunday at Los Angeles riding a four-game winning streak.
“We’ve been playing well,” Lawson said. “Everybody’s getting acclimated. Gallo’s getting his rhythm back. I think we’re playing at a high level right now. JaVale’s been dunking and playing well, too. We’re ready to go.”
The question is, how far?
“I think the last month of the season puts us in a position where we can go into a series with confidence and with the belief that we can win,” Karl said. “Where we were when we made the trade in the first week in March, to get to this point, I think it’s a pretty spectacular performance from our guys.
“How we beat the Lakers, I don’t know. But I’m just confident that if we play hard we will have a good chance.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)