West finals give Nuggets reason to shout

The Vertical
Yahoo! Sports

DENVER – David Stern’s worst nightmare let the love wash over it on Wednesday night, arms raised, noise crashing down, the raucous and rolling Denver Nuggets rushing into the Western Conference finals. Carmelo Anthony(notes) and Kenyon Martin(notes) and J.R. Smith(notes) traded knowing nods and I-told-you-so laughs. Suddenly, those bad tatts and bad reputations are serious and sobering threats to the commissioner’s television-driven desire of a Kobe-LeBron NBA Finals.

The Los Angeles Lakers are increasingly wobbly, and those chants of “Beat L.A. … Beat L.A.” in the final moments of Game 5 aren’t such a far-fetched idea. It is improbable, yes, but the days and nights of waiting for the Nuggets to implode are over. They’re explosive and hardened and dangerous. They’re the hot NCAA tournament team on a March roll, flexing and preening, feeling like it can do anything.

“They’re a legitimate championship-caliber team,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “They’ve got a great shot, a real opportunity.”

Mostly, they’ve grown up. Chauncey Billups(notes) walked into the gymnasium and changed everything here. He had a genius 28 points and 12 assists in the 124-110 victory to eliminate the Dallas Mavericks, and now, remarkably, takes his seventh straight team to a conference final.

“Storybook,” Billups said. He has come home to Denver, and restored character and credibility to this uneven franchise.

As much as anything, Denver has Dallas owner Mark Cuban to thank for much of the prism with which the public will judge these Nuggets now. He had to go and use that tired code word that comes with rugged, black basketball players in America: thug.

Martin is a nightmare on the floor, but he’s no thug. Smith can be a clown, but he’s no thug. Anthony has a history, too, but he’s grown up a lot.

Thugs? Listen, they seldom make it to the NBA. When they do, they don’t have staying power. Cuban has long railed against the stereotypes and labels thrust onto NBA players, and he went a long way toward perpetuating them with that sophomoric snap at K-Mart’s mother, Lydia Moore. It’s strange: In hockey, they don’t use that word with physical players. When they have tattoos, it seems, everything changes.

In the end, it fed the public’s worst sensibilities about judging these Nuggets. Stern should be ashamed of himself. He can’t have an owner talking that way. He created a climate in Game 4 in Dallas that was needless and despicable, a free-for-all on the Nuggets and their families on Monday.

Cuban did everyone a favor running off to Vegas to pick up an award for Game 5 because his presence at the Pepsi Center would’ve brought out the worst in everyone. This way, the Nuggets could spend this night celebrating a return to the conference finals for the first time since 1985 without cursing out Cuban.

Nevertheless, Cuban’s apology on his blog was a half-assed embarrassment, self-indulgent and patronizing. It was rightfully unacceptable to the Nuggets, and it should’ve been to the league office, too.

The NBA insisted that it was a closed matter on Wednesday, and a spokesman said, “We are confident that this will be brought to an intelligent close with an adult conversation.” Yes, that’s how this will be resolved with Cuban and Martin. Adult conversion. K-Mart was berating him when they parted ways in Dallas this week. Fines mean nothing to Cuban, but the league office owed everyone a strongly worded reprimand, if not a quantifiable punishment. Owners should be held to a different standard and almost never are in the NBA.

“They called us every name in the book,” Anthony said.

If nothing else, this episode turned out to be a valuable test for Denver. Once, the Nuggets would’ve become consumed with exacting immature revenge. No sucker punches, no brawls, no suspensions. Anthony has come a long way, and now gets a chance to become a genuine superstar in the NBA. He fell far behind classmates LeBron James(notes) and Dwyane Wade(notes) because he couldn’t stay out of trouble and because the Nuggets never won in the playoffs. Last summer, Denver dumped Marcus Camby’s(notes) contract for nothing and Anthony’s Team USA teammates relentlessly teased him.

“I was kind of the joke of the USA team,” he said. “They said that we got rid of all of our guys.”

The NBA’s executive of the year, Mark Warkentien, reshaped these Nuggets and they came of age. As they ran down the corridor to the locker room after the beat-down on the Mavericks, Martin yelled, “Eight more. …We need eight more.”

The Denver Nuggets are thinking about the West finals and beyond now. These bad tatts and bad reputations are the commissioner’s worst nightmare. The Nuggets have reached the conference finals thinking it feels like March and they’re on some kind of a roll.

“I have a feeling we are not going to be messed up by the next round,” Denver coach George Karl said. “People are waiting for us to crack, but there is a smart toughness to this team.”

Beat L.A., they screamed in the Mile High City. Beat L.A.

No one was laughing. Not anymore.

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