Originally created 04/24/04

Lovable losers: Nuggets finally give fans something to cheer



DENVER -- The Broncos have won two Super Bowls, the Avalanche two Stanley Cup titles. The Rockies haven't exactly been winners, but at least the Blake Street Bombers were exciting to watch.

The Nuggets? With loads of losses and not much star power, they haven't given fans in this city much reason to pay attention over the past decade.

That certainly won't be the case Saturday night, when the Nuggets host the Minnesota Timberwolves in the Mile High City's first NBA playoff game since 1995.

"They've been the lovable losers for so long, it's great to see them doing well," fan John Willworth said. "It seems like everybody's talking about the Nuggets. It should be a great atmosphere Saturday night."

That's what the Nuggets are hoping for. After losing the first two games in Minnesota in the best-of-seven series, Denver returns for what's sure to be two ear-ringing home games.

"We know it's going to be an electric crowd," Minnesota guard Fred Hoiberg said. "We know they're going to make difficult on us. Put that in combination with the altitude, it's going to make for a tough couple of games for us."

It's hard to imagine the Nuggets having any kind of home-court advantage.

After reaching the playoffs in 1995, Denver had eight straight losing seasons and finished no higher than fourth in its division. That included an 11-win season in 1997-98 and last year's 17-65 mark, which tied Cleveland for the league's worst.

That kind of futility would make it hard for any team to maintain a fan base, especially one devoid of any marquee players.

And, since the Nuggets weren't really giving fans a reason to show up, no one did.

After selling every seat in 1994-95, Denver's attendance plummeted over the next few years to a low average of 11,254 in 1996-97. A brief spike occurred when the Pepsi Center opened in 1999, but it didn't last long. The Nuggets' average attendance was a respectable 14,825 last season, but there were times the arena was so empty fans could be heard yelling insults from the upper deck.

That changed this season.

Charismatic rookie Carmelo Anthony gave the fans reason to show up and the Nuggets kept them in their seats by winning consistently for the first time in nearly a decade.

Denver had 17 sellouts, most since 1994-95, and nine of the top 10 crowds in team history were this season. The Nuggets went 29-12 at home, including seven straight wins to end the season - one against Minnesota.

"We have the greatest fans in the NBA. I've said that from Day 1," Nuggets coach Jeff Bzdelik said. "The fans will be there for us. Now we need to do our part."

Which won't be easy.

Minnesota won the first two games by 14 points each, in part because Denver stagnated on offense and couldn't stop the Timberwolves' big three of Kevin Garnett, Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell.

The Nuggets were the league's fifth-best scoring team during the regular season at 97.2 points per game, but they averaged just 86.5 the first two games against Minnesota. Part of that is the Timberwolves' defense, but it's also because Denver hasn't pushed the ball like it did during the regular season. The Nuggets have averaged 19 fast-break points per game compared to 25 during the season.

Denver also has had trouble figuring out which player to stop.

Cassell hurt the Nuggets in Game 1 with 40 points, then Sprewell got free for 31 points and seven 3-pointers in Game 2. As for Garnett, he's continued his MVP-caliber performance of the regular season by averaging 25 points and 21 rebounds.

And the two easy wins has given the Timberwolves the kind of confidence that might be hard for even 19,000 screaming fans to shake.

"We feed off negative energy, which is kind of a good thing," Garnett said. "We like being that renegade. We love to be those people that people love to hate. We like the fact that you hate us and you're against us."