Nuggets Down, 3-1, and Feeling the Pain : Half the Roster Is Ailing, English Is Out and Even Ballboy Has a Cast

Times Staff Writer

There were no wisecracks Sunday from Denver Nugget Coach Doug Moe, who usually finds something sarcastic or funny to say about his team no matter the outcome. This time, it seemed that Moe had lost the game and his sense of humor.

All Moe did when he met the media after the Nuggets' 120-116 loss to the Lakers in Game 4 of the Western Conference championship series was tightly squeeze a can of beer and unleash about two dozen expletives, including several that he made up on the spur of the moment.

When Moe was finally finished with his verbal assault, he sighed, took a long swig of beer and softly said, "Maybe I can relax now and feel better."

Every beer in Denver's locker room and every expletive in Moe's vocabulary probably couldn't have made him feel better. At this point, all that could help would be a healthy Alex English, a healthy Calvin Natt, a healthy Dan Issel, a healthy Lafayette Lever, a healthy . . .

Well, you get the picture--or X-ray, in this case. The Nuggets, hurting coming into the series, are now under such an injury siege that it seems impossible for them to rebound from a 3-1 deficit and beat the Lakers.

When the Nuggets limp over to Los Angeles for Game 5 Wednesday night, they will face possible elimination without English, their leading scorer, who broke the thumb on his shooting hand in the third quarter and is considered lost for the series.

English, who was escorted off the court after the game, underwent surgery for a multiple fracture. All English means to the Nuggets is about 28 points a game, which is what he had Sunday before breaking his thumb.

"He's done for the season," said Moe, before a diagnosis had been made. "You'll see him next year."

Presumably, you will see the rest of the Nuggets Wednesday night, but more than half the roster is nursing injuries. Even the team ballboy had a cast on his right arm.

"If we had everybody healthy, we would be up 3-1 (in the series)," said Natt, unflinchingly. "We have 12 guys, and six are hurt (actually, seven) and the Lakers are at full strength. We almost beat them today, anyway."

It is perhaps easier to list which Nuggets aren't currently injured. The wounded include Natt (right knee cartilage), Lever (hyperextended knee), Wayne Cooper (strained rib ligament), Elston Turner (sore hamstring) and Mike Evans (sore knee).

After Sunday's game, you can add Issel (deep thigh bruise) and English, who already was playing with strained ligaments in both thumbs.

"We played great," Moe said. "We did everything we possibly could to win that game. To be honest, I was overwhelmed by our performance. We're really hurting."

No one on the Nuggets is hurting more than Natt, who scored 28 points and kept the Nuggets in the game with a strong fourth quarter. Natt has played for several months with a calcified piece of cartilage floating around his right knee, and he also has severe arthritis in both knees.

As soon as the season ends, Natt will have surgery to repair or remove the cartilage.

For a few tense seconds in the third quarter, it seemed that Natt's season had ended earlier than expected.

While gliding to the basket for a layup, his right knee buckled and he fell to the floor with a sickening thud. He lay face-down under the basket and had a pained expression on his face. Moe, who had seen English escorted off the court three minutes earlier, thought Natt would be out, too.

"Calvin doesn't screw around like that," Moe said. "When he goes down and stays down, you know it's bad. I didn't know whether he'd get back up."

Natt did make it to his feet and limped to the Nuggets' huddle for a timeout. Moe asked him if he wanted a break. Natt refused. He stayed in the game and went on to score eight straight points midway through the fourth quarter.

"I know I had to stay in," Natt said. "We needed someone to score. I just did as much as I could. If I had been healthy, I would've played a whole lot better and the team would've won.

"We've had to fight like that all year. We have showed the Lakers and the people across the U.S. that we are for real. It wasn't a fluke that we got here. You can't ask for much more from this team.

"People think we're just going to go down to L.A. (for Game 5) and go through the motions and get the series over with. We won't do that. It's not over until the fat lady sings."

If the fat lady were singing for the Nuggets, she'd probably have laryngitis.

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