Loss to Lakers doesn’t slow George Karl, Nuggets

Not that we didn’t already know what a gap there was between the West’s best team and everyone else . . .

Of course, in Sunday’s first half when the Denver Nuggets, who had already beaten the Lakers twice by an average of 19.5 points, led them again by 13, it looked as if there was a new best team in the Western Conference, standings or no standings.

Staving off panic locally, the Lakers came back to win . . . barely . . . going ahead to stay with 3 minutes 2 seconds left, even with Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups shooting a combined 11 for 31 and turning the ball over 13 times.

By now we’re past asking whether the Nuggets are on the same level as the Lakers.

Now the question is whether the Lakers are on the same level as the Nuggets.


And the answer is: Right now, that’s all the Lakers are.

The Nuggets are on a mission, with Coach George Karl still on the sideline when he’s not undergoing radiation and chemotherapy for cancer of the throat.

It has brought them so much closer than the days when the Nuggets players were at his throat, such as their 4-1 first-round loss to the Clippers in 2006 when Karl suspended Kenyon Martin after a halftime screaming match.

“It is a major thing, but George’s attitude has given us so much positive, man,” Billups said. “He’s so positive and upbeat, we see him like that and we have no choice but to be the same way.

“When we see him coaching games like this, coming out on the road, pouring his heart out for us, then we kind of owe it to him to return the favor.”

Karl had cancer of the prostate in 2005, but that was slow-growing, enabling him to finish the season and obtain several opinions before electing for surgery, so he was in the clear when the tests came back negative.

This is fast-growing -- “a dangerous cancer is the best way to describe it,” Karl said -- obliging him to begin treatment immediately, season or no season.

Met with a national outpouring of affection, from George Will’s e-mail to Jack Nicholson’s embrace Sunday, Karl, once the Tar Heels kamikaze and Dean Smith’s bad boy, has a new perspective.

“Basketball is my escape,” Karl said before Sunday’s game. “Basketball is my opportunity to go be with my friends and my basketball family and feel supported.

“I don’t want any different attention. Everybody asks me, how am I feeling? There’s no pain in what I’m going through. . . .

“The radiation and the treatment will get harsher and more difficult in the weeks to come, but right now I’ve been through one week and I just have a little bit of a sore throat.”

Not that anything he has been through as a coach means anything compared with a real-world problem this serious, but even with many of the same players, his Nuggets are an entirely different team and have been since Billups arrived last season.

With Billups’ calming presence, it was like getting four players: Chauncey, ‘Melo, Martin and J.R. Smith, who are now like smoking volcanoes, rather than erupting ones.

If Lakers Coach Phil Jackson has had more than his share of eccentrics (Dennis Rodman, Bison Dele, Ron Artest), he chose his.

No one gave Karl a choice. They just sat him on the bull and opened the gate.

“I thought that was going to be on my -- well, I better not talk about gravestones,” said Karl, laughing.

“I would like to be Dean Smith for a couple of years. Yes, I’d like to be Gregg Popovich and coach Tim Duncan, a no-nonsense, low-maintenance superstar.”

He’s doing fine with what he’s got.

The Nuggets left feeling as if they had given away a big game, saying they’d like to be back in spring, like late May, which is when the Lakers fully expect to see them.

It’s just that this time, “See you in spring” has all the more meaning.