“Do you need anything?” Speller asked.
“Yeah,” Martin said. “We need a miracle.”
Speller clamped hands with Martin and began to pray. When they finished, Speller moved to the next Nugget in need. By the time Speller was done, he had met with the majority of players, including Carmelo Anthony(notes), who was in the training room.
The message was clear: The Nuggets would take help from wherever they could find it. If they needed to look to a higher power for support, well, they’d do that, too. With coach George Karl at home recovering from throat cancer, a long list of injuries that by night’s end would get even longer and a severe case of finger-pointing corroding their chemistry, the Nuggets didn’t seem to have much hope of climbing out of their 3-1 hole against the Utah Jazz. For one night at least, they banded together long enough to beat the Jazz 116-102 and force a sixth game on Friday in Salt Lake City.
“My focus was just do what I got to do to win the basketball game,” said Anthony, who scored a team-high 26 points. “I’ve been in a situation like this before, elimination games, and I haven’t succeeded. I didn’t want that feeling tonight.
“We were back to normal tonight. As a team we had a rough two days with stuff that has been going on. But … we put that stuff behind us and we went out there and played our butts off and won the game.”
Just a short drive east of the Pepsi Center, Karl watched the game on TV from his home. For much of the season, the Nuggets looked like legitimate contenders to win the Western Conference. That changed once it became evident Karl’s second fight with cancer would keep him away from the team in the playoffs. Coaching the temperamental Nuggets has proved a daunting challenge for assistant coach Adrian Dantley. After the Nuggets lost Game 4, a frustrated Anthony said he needed more “help.” Guard J.R. Smith(notes) tweeted that the team’s selfishness contributed to the loss. Separate team sources said the Nuggets have been plagued by two core problems: Not enough of them have played hard, and too few of them have been willing to pass the ball.
“Am I kind of surprised? Yes I am,” Dantley said of the team’s predicament before Game 5.
Martin was asked if the Nuggets needed a players-only meeting to work out any problems. “For what?” he said. “We’ve had too many of them. It shouldn’t take more than one of them a year. We’ve had more than one. That’s too many.”
Watching his team suffer through the first week of the playoffs was hardly uplifting for Karl.
“I see him every day when we are in town,” said Karl’s son, Nuggets guard Coby Karl(notes). “…I think his biggest disappointment is he’s all about respecting the game and he’s disappointed in some of the effort.”
Coby Karl said his father has the passion to return next season, but it remains to be seen whether his health will allow it. “It’s going to be his choice,” Coby Karl said. “He’s still struggling with his voice. The only thing is his voice is still bothering him. He’s getting better every day. One of his first loves has always been basketball and doing it the right way.”
The Jazz, meanwhile, had overcome their own struggles to win three consecutive games after a series-opening loss. Starting center Mehmet Okur(notes) is out for the season with an Achilles’ injury while starting small forward Andrei Kirilenko(notes) has yet to play in the postseason because of a strained left calf. Kirilenko said he hopes to practice Sunday or Monday and return soon, but the Jazz have so far survived without him.
The Nuggets have their own injury concerns. Forward Kenyon Martin has been slowed by a left knee injury that could require surgery in the summer. The Nuggets also lost starting center Nene during Game 5 after he sprained his left knee. He’ll receive an MRI on Thursday.
If Nene is out, the Nuggets will have to turn to reserves Johan Petro(notes), Chris Andersen(notes), who has a hand injury; Malik Allen(notes) and possibly 6-foot-11 rookie center Brian Butch(notes), a late addition who has yet to make his NBA debut. Dantley was uncertain if Nene will be out for the remainder of the series, but Anthony didn’t seem optimistic about his return.
“We’ll find out how serious it is,” Dantley said. “…If he doesn’t play, we just have to go without him. Utah is playing without two players. We’ll just have to go without our player.”
All the drama the Nuggets have weathered seemed to be forgotten once Game 5 began. Denver was well-balanced on this night, with six players scoring in double figures. The Nuggets shot 50.7 percent and made 42 trips to the free-throw line, 17 more than the Jazz. Anthony received the help he pleaded for a game earlier.
“Once everybody figured out what I was saying, I think everybody responded to that challenge,” Anthony said. “I never pointed nobody out. I never said any names. I said that as a team we needed to do it together. Tonight, we responded to that.”
The Nuggets might want to consider bringing Speller on the road with them for Game 6. They still can use all the help they can get.
“We got to get on that plane at 3 o’clock tomorrow,” Anthony said. “It’s going to be even tougher out there in Utah. We took care of business tonight. We put it on them to go out and make some adjustments. Hopefully, we can still take care of business on their court.”