The Nuggets are fastening their hopes to a fickle hamstring.
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Arron Afflalo to the rescue.
Pronouncing his left hamstring fit after practice Friday, the Denver guard will take the court for the first time in two weeks when Denver hosts the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday night in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series.
He’s been in this position three times since mid-March, only to test out the injury in a game and aggravate it.
Afflalo, the Nuggets’ top defender and go-to scorer in crunch time, has no idea how many minutes he can handle or if the hamstring will even hold up.
Still, Afflalo’s presence might just provide the boost the team’s looking for with Denver down 2-0 in the best-of-7 series.
”We’re healthy now,” Afflalo said. ”No more excuses.”
The bickering has subsided, too.
Coach George Karl smoothed some ruffled feathers after upsetting Chris ”Birdman” Andersen and J.R. Smith by keeping them on the bench for most of Game 2. Smith was especially frustrated after playing just six minutes in the Nuggets’ 106-89 loss Wednesday night.
Smith was on the court when, as Karl described, the ”flood gates opened” in the first half, the game quickly turning from out of hand to out of control.
The next day, Smith intimated there was a ”strong possibility” he’d sign elsewhere next summer as a free agent. No longer simmering over the slight, Smith backed off that talk Friday.
”We’re all the same page and we’re ready to go,” Smith said. ”A lot of guys understood exactly where I was coming from. A few guys didn’t say anything. I think it’s great that we have that attitude toward one another that nobody takes anything personal and everybody just wants to win.”
Karl brushed off Smith’s comments, appreciating Smith’s passion more than anything.
”I don’t want J.R. to be happy about not playing. I want J.R. to be angry,” Karl said. ”I want Bird to be angry. I want them all to be angry. I would be angry. I also want them to be teammates. I think J.R., more than ever, is showing that he wants to be that guy.
”I don’t think he deserves this criticism at this moment. Maybe in the past he deserved it more, not yesterday.”
Reduced to a spectator the first two games, Afflalo has had to sit back and watch Oklahoma City’s All-Star duo of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant go off against the Nuggets defense.
Now, it’s his turn to try to slow down Westbrook, maybe even switch over for a crack at covering Durant as well.
”I’m not going to stop either one by myself,” Afflalo said. ”It’s going to be a team effort. But I’ll use my ability to try to take advantage of them in the ways that I can.”
Afflalo had the Nuggets playing at a high level after the blockbuster deal that sent Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks in February. He won’t dazzle on offense like Anthony or steal Billups’ title of Mr. Big Shot, but he is the glue that binds this team together.
His bothersome hamstring cost him 13 games over the final month of the regular season, interrupting the team’s chemistry.
In fact, four of the Nuggets’ five losses in April have been to the Thunder – all with Afflalo sidelined.
That’s why his return was viewed as vital, just to try to get the team back on track against the high-flying Thunder.
”He’s one of our most tough-minded, fundamentally sound, hard-nosed, winning guys on our team,” Karl said. ”I mean, before he got hurt, he was playing the most minutes on the team. He played more minutes than Melo, he played more minutes than Chauncey. He’s a competitive, winning kid. Skill-wise, he doesn’t have greatness but he’s damn good in a lot of areas.”
Afflalo brings quiet confidence to the court, a demeanor that rubs off on his teammates.
Westbrook knows all about that. The two were teammates at UCLA, even rooming together.
”He’s going to bring more toughness,” Westbrook said. ”He’s going to come out and be ready to compete and will play hard.”
Thunder coach Scott Brooks couldn’t agree more.
”I don’t know the dynamics of all the inner workings on what he does on their team. I just know from the outside looking in he’s very solid,” Brooks said. ”He’s a great position defender, he’s a good playmaker, he passes. He’s a team guy.”
Hamstring willing, Afflalo will spend plenty of time getting reacquainted with Westbrook.
As for stopping Durant, well, there just may not be a blueprint that exists for limiting the explosiveness of one of the league’s most talented – and unassuming – players. He’s averaging 32 points in this series.
”It’s just all about playing together as a group, no matter who scores or who rebounds as long as you do it together.” Durant said.
Precisely the message that Brooks has been preaching.
”It’s a businesslike approach,” Brooks said. ”We know we’re up 2-0, but we can’t be happy about that. We have to focus all our attention, effort, energy and teamwork toward Game 3.
”We understand that we did our job. Now they have to do their job.”