Kings' tank runs dry against streaking Nuggets

Published: Sunday, Mar. 24, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Sunday, Mar. 24, 2013 - 9:13 am

DENVER – There has been some crazy stuff floating in the famously thin air here these past few days.

On Thursday, the Denver Nuggets needed a few prayers and a few free throws to squeak past the Philadelphia 76ers. On Friday, two teams in shorts and cleats played a world-class soccer match during a snowstorm. On Saturday, the Kings huffed and puffed … and huffed and puffed … but inhaled at all the wrong times.

Late mistakes. Missed shots. Poor defense. Missed free throws. Blown opportunities against an exceptional opponent.

"I'm glad we don't have to play them again," DeMarcus Cousins said after the Kings fell to the Nuggets 101-95 at the Pepsi Center. "They are definitely one of the top teams. They never stop. They run sets that take you out of what you're trying to do offensively and defensively. Really, really good."

Their coach can say he isn't convinced – George Karl ripped into his players afterward for their erratic effort against another lottery-bound opponent – but Saturday's victory makes it 15 straight for the Nuggets, the team that only the most impassioned fantasy leaguers will even remember in a dozen years.

Go ahead. Check back sometime during the next decade. There isn't a superstar on the roster.

Their floor leader is 37 years old. Their best player, Ty Lawson, didn't even play; he sat out with a sore heel. Yet there they were again, running and rebounding, defending and dunking, passing and cutting and moving, and doing just enough of everything when it mattered most.

Other than Cousins, who was energetic throughout, the Kings looked like a group suffering from the usual effects of the high-altitude deep freeze. They left Danilo Gallinari open for three-pointers, left Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee unchallenged for dunks and putbacks. They had no legs, had very little lift and, surprisingly, offered no Toney Douglas sighting, either.

"But by the end of the second quarter, you started to see the momentum starting to push," Kings coach Keith Smart said, "and these guys came out and executed and put us right there with a chance."

Cousins, who finished with 24 points, 15 rebounds and a career-high five blocks, opened the second half with a dunk and a free throw. John Salmons hit a three. The Kings continued to attack and answer every Nuggets run until the final stretch.

While the Kings were committing turnovers, missing free throws and misfiring on those wide-open threes they had been converting so often lately, Andre Miller took control of the game. The 37-year-old guard – and that would be the crafty Miller – found Kosta Koufos for a hook, fed Faried for a dunk, and on the critical possession of the night drove past Isaiah Thomas for a layup, a foul and a resulting free throw that made it 98-92 with 51 seconds left.

Marcus Thornton missed a three. Thomas missed a three. Salmons missed a three. Thornton missed another three.

So instead of busting the Nuggets' streak, which also includes 17 consecutive home victories, the Kings return to Sleep Train Arena for a visit tonight by the wounded, waiting 76ers.

"The team that was going to make the fewest mistakes on both sides of the ball," Smart said, "the one that was going to make the plays was going to win."

While the Nuggets don't take your breath away like, say, the Miami Heat, this is a terrific ensemble. Look it up in the basketball dictionary, Smart suggested, and the Nuggets define the word "team."

Call The Bee's Ailene Voisin (916) 321-1208 and follow her on Twitter @ailene_voisin.

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