DENVER - Wrongly, professional sports are in the next era — as in what can you do for me next. What have you done for me lately? That song has been played out for years. What can you do for me now? If you’re asking that, you’re too late. It’s all about the next. And that’s where the Denver Nuggets are. What’s next? Forget that just three years ago the Nuggets won a paltry 17 games. Forget that two years ago the Nuggets made the playoffs for the first time since the 1994-95 season. And forget that the Nuggets are better now than they were last year and the year before. The Nuggets have made the playoffs two consecutive years and should soon make it three with a possible No. 3 seed, too. For many folks, that’s enough to demand more. And more should be expected, but not without perspective. “They went out on a limb and made some really challenging moves to change the scope of their team,” Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “(Marcus) Camby and (Kenyon) Martin and the draft pick of Carmelo (Anthony), all of a sudden vaults them into the highly athletic group of teams. Kiki Vandeweghe has supplemented that with some really good role players along with them.” The Nuggets have gone from an alsoran to one of the top six teams in the Western Conference. Folks shouldn’t let that accomplishment be completely overshadowed by two playoff appearances. “I think Kiki (Vandeweghe) and Stan (Kroenke) should be highly complimented for taking a team that, what, 3½ years ago was winning 16, 17, 18 games and now you have a team that’s trying to break into the top six or eight teams in the league,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. “There are times we play like we’re capable of doing that and times we don’t. Thursday’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers proved that point. The Nuggets looked nearly flawless in a 40-point first quarter. They looked pedestrian converting 5 of 19 shots during the second quarter. Call it part of the learning curve. The Nuggets are good. Once they learn how keep a lead — read, play better defense — they’ll be one of the conference’s top teams. “Just to be on the cusp of that echelon, in a very short period of time, I think it’s kind of remarkable, fast, faster than the norm,” Karl said. “Hopeful- ly we can break through some new ground this year in the playoffs. I think the next step is winning, winning in the playoffs.” A large part of winning is up to Karl. He has a team with a tremendous amount of offensive talent. It has a lot of physical talent, too. But, with the exception of Camby’s shot-blocking prowess, the Nuggets’ team defense is as porous as a screen door. Kobe Bryant blew through the Nuggets’ defense too often and too easily for it to be considered good. Karl has to find away to meld each player’s mental outlook toward defense, much like New York Knicks coach Larry Brown did when he coached the Detroit Pistons. Few, if any, NBA squads play better team defense than the Pistons. “You’ve got the talent,” Jackson said. “Now it becomes how does the chemistry fit together? How does the coaching staff help that chemistry fit together? How does the maturity of the players come together in order to make that a possibility? “Now the thing is how to keep this group together and playing as a team through the growth period that has to come with the next step.” Karl said it best: Winning in the playoffs is what’s next. Two years ago, an inexperienced Nuggets squad lost to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Last season the Nuggets lost to the eventual NBA champion San Antonio Spurs. This postseason, with or without a home-court advantage, the Nuggets will have an opportunity to take that next step. For the folks watching and waiting for what’s next, don’t forget to appreciate what’s happening now. Columnist Milo F. Bryant can be reached at 636-0252 or email@example.com. Check out Milo’s blog, The Extra Milo, at http://milobryant.blogspot.com/
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