DENVER — Dan Issel should have been the story.
The former Denver Nuggets president/general manager/head coach, who resigned in December 2001 after shouting a racial slur to a fan, was courtside as an Altitude Network color commentator for Friday’s 115-96 win over the Los Angeles Clippers.
It was the first Nuggets game Issel has watched at the Pepsi Center since Jan. 10, 2002, and he said it probably will be the only one he attends this year. Naturally, he should have drawn the most attention.
“Of all the jobs I’ve had in basketball, doing the color commentary is the most fun,” Issel said after the game. “You get a great seat, you get to talk to nice people. It was a lot of fun. I appreciate (Nuggets GM) Kiki (Vandeweghe) and the rest of the organization for inviting me back to do it.”
The Horse, however, was upstaged by Marcus Camby. Despite playing with a sore right hamstring, Camby had 20 points and 17 rebounds and could have had more had he not sat out the fourth quarter of Denver’s win.
Nuggets head coach George Karl tried to look for the right words to describe his center, but he boiled it down to one thought.
“He’s just damn good,” he said.
Camby also had three blocked shots, giving him 153 for the season. He is second in the league in blocks per game at 2.89, but more importantly, that part of his game, and his rebounding, is a big reason Denver can push the pace.
“He’s a defensive factor, he leads the league in defensive rebounding per minute, and for us to run we do have to have a rebounder like that,” Karl said. “And then the way he plays clutch defensively in the fourth quarter is incredible.”
He didn’t need to be a factor in Friday’s fourth quarter because the Nuggets, like they did against Charlotte, put this one away early. They had an 81-68 lead after three quarters and the Clippers never got closer than 10. When Greg Buckner hit a layup with 1 minute, 24 seconds left, Denver had a 113-90 lead, its biggest of the night.
Suddenly, the 34-30 Nuggets are closing out teams.
“Coach has been stressing it a lot,” Camby said. “Before that we’ve been waiting until the fourth quarter to pull out ball games. We know we can’t do that if we want to get to the playoffs.”
Right now the Nuggets are sitting pretty for a playoff spot. Their win, combined with the L.A. Lakers and Minnesota losses, have them 21/2 games ahead of those two teams for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. They trail Memphis by 31/2 games for the seventh seed, and have two games left with the Grizzlies.
“Whether we’re the team to beat or not, it’s irrelevant,” said Kenyon Martin, who had 17 points and nine rebounds playing with a sore left knee. “We just want to continue to play well. We realize that they lost and we won, but we’re still taking it game by game. If we start looking too far ahead ... like coach said before the game, this game has a funny way of smacking you in the face. Anything can happen.”
Carmelo Anthony can attest to that. A week ago he was baffled because he was benched in the fourth quarter of a loss to Phoenix. In the two games after that, he has scored 47 points in 51 minutes. He had 21 points Friday night and took only nine shots.
“Carmelo had a really good game,” Karl said. “He’s getting comfortable running and feeling how to get shots.”
Anthony was on the court when Syracuse, the team he led to a national title two years ago, was being upset by Vermont in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Later, after a postgame shower, Anthony walked by the TV in the locker room as Kansas was losing to Bucknell.
“Misery loves company,” he said.
Lately, that’s the only misery he and his teammates have had to suffer.
Notes: Karl said before the game he hopes that Nene, out since he sprained ligaments in his left knee Feb. 13, could play Sunday against Milwaukee. … Denver shot a season-high .571 from the field Friday. … Denver never trailed against the Clippers, the second straight game it led wire-to-wire.