DENVER (AP) – The Denver Nuggets brain trust has plenty of time on its hands now to contemplate whether it was a flaw in the team’s makeup or just a bad matchup that led to yet another early exit from the playoffs.
The Nuggets were first-round flops for the fourth straight season, taken out this time by the gritty Golden State Warriors in six games.
Coach George Karl said the series was lost in Game 2, when the Warriors, despite losing All-Star David Lee to a hip injury, ended Denver’s 24-game winning streak at the Pepsi Center and seized the homecourt advantage that the third-seeded Nuggets had worked so hard to attain.
Their pratfall in the playoffs rendered their regular season success a blip.
“You want my honest opinion? No, it’s not a success,” Kenneth Faried said. “We won 57 games. Wow, in the regular season. Big whoop. It don’t matter about the regular season, it matters about the postseason. … We had homecourt advantage. We just have to live with it and get better next year.”
Don’t expect Karl to be the fall guy. He has a year and more than $4 million left on his contract and is coming off an NBA franchise-record 57-win season that included an NBA-best 38-3 record at home.
Nuggets president Josh Kroenke told the team’s website Friday that he hasn’t given a thought to replacing Karl, whom he said should be NBA Coach of the Year.
“I think we made a big step this year, but it wasn’t validated by a playoffs win,” said Karl, who mixed and matched his rotations and minutes to perfection all year but couldn’t find the right combination in the playoffs until it was too late.
Andre Miller, who still hasn’t won a playoff series in his 13 NBA seasons, summed it up after the Nuggets’ 92-88 loss in Game 6: “We got outplayed, we got outcoached, we got outworked, we got outrebounded, we got outsmarted.”
Although the loss of Lee proved to be a blessing in disguise for the Warriors, who went with a smaller lineup that the Nuggets couldn’t keep up with, the real turning point for Denver came back on April 4, when forward Danilo Gallinari blew out his left knee while driving the lane against Dallas.
Without their second-leading scorer and top free throw shooter, the Nuggets weren’t the same outfit that piled up points in the paint and led the league in full-court sprints.
The missed too many shots in the playoffs and they sorely missed Gallinari.
“When you take a piece out, it changes a lot of things,” a somber Karl said Friday. “And as I said, when Golden State kind of seized the personality of their confidence, our confidence and our personality probably wasn’t as strong as it would have been with Gallo.
“Now, would Gallo have been a star in the series? I don’t know. I think he makes us a strong team. And one more card to play, one more player of talent to play, I think it could have won, but what should’ve, would’ve, could’ve, I guess that’s for you guys.”
Gallinari recently underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee, delaying the operation to fix a torn anterior cruciate ligament. His return is targeted for Jan. 1, 2014.
The Nuggets missed Gallinari behind the arc and at the stripe. Never was that more evident than Thursday night when they were 7 for 28 on 3-pointers and made just 13 of 21 free throws.
In stark contrast to another gorgeous day in the Rocky Mountains, the Nuggets were a downtrodden bunch Friday as they met one last time and then scattered for an earlier vacation that anybody had anticipated.
“When all the clouds go away, when all the toxins of this series goes away, I’m sure there will be a lot more sunshine than there is right now,” Karl said.
The Nuggets were left to lament their close call in Game 6 when they roared back from an 18-point deficit with nine minutes left and had a chance to tie it in the closing seconds before letting it slip away.
“The end of the game I thought our players showed incredible heart,” Karl said. “So, even though we lost, you can look at the heart of this team, the youth of this team and the talent of this team and say it has a bright future.”
After benching Kosta Koufos and going small to match Mark Jackson’s guard-heavy lineup, Karl inserted $10 million reserve JaVale McGee into the starting lineup in Games 5 and 6 and he gave them an energy boost.
“I think from the very beginning of the season that was the desire, but watching practices and watching the impact of the game, I thought Kosta was more valuable to the starting unit,” Karl said. “… But I know JaVale would like to start. I think we’ll push him to work hard this summer and get him into a position where that can be a possibility.”
Karl also wants to get rookie Evan Fournier more minutes next season. He got a lot of playing time when Gallinari got hurt but wasn’t prepared for his role in the playoffs, starting off sketchy in the first two games before Karl decided to go with veterans instead.
Denver’s first-round failure really stung this time because the West is so wide open with Oklahoma City losing All-Star Russell Westbrook to a season-ending knee injury.
Karl called it one of the most disappointing defeats in his nine seasons in Denver, all but one of which have ended with the Nuggets serving as first-round fodder.
“I’m going to have a hard time with it,” Karl said. “Plus, I thought we had a team that I was pushing the buttons and moving things around and it worked so well in the regular season and then not to make it work in the playoffs is a heavy burden on me. And of course my record speaks for itself and even though I put an armor on and try to defend my record, I’m disappointed in my record, also.”
The biggest priority facing the Nuggets this offseason – aside from general manager Masai Ujiri’s own contract extension, is the status of Andre Iguodala, who is expected to opt out of the final year of his contract, forgoing $18 million in salary in search of a longer deal.
Iguodala, who will be an unrestricted free agent along with top reserve Corey Brewer, said he wants to win a ring and maybe that can happen in Denver.
“I’m going to go to L.A. and sit down and talk to my agent and we’ll start having conversations,” Iguodala said. “I didn’t really think that the season would be ending this early, so it was never in my mind what I would do next year. My whole thought process was how far could we go and how could we improve as a team.”
– By Arnie Stapleton, AP Sports Writer
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