Nuggets sinking at bad time

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DENVER (AP) – Instead of tuning up, the division-champion Denver Nuggets were resting up.

Or so the story went after a loss at home to the Houston Rockets, their third straight embarrassing setback and the second in which Carmelo Anthony spent the entire fourth quarter on the bench.

“I’m concerned,” Marcus Camby said Monday night after the 86-83 loss. “I don’t like the way we’re playing. I don’t like our focus going into the playoffs. Hopefully, it can change in the next couple of days.”

There is only one more chance for a confidence boost in the regular season. That chance comes Wednesday at Seattle. After that, the playoffs start – on the road for the Nuggets (44-37), who won their division and earned the third seed in the West, but won’t have a better record than the sixth seed and thus won’t get home-court advantage.

Some would argue that champions are supposed to play like champions no matter what the situation. Still, that lack of motivation might be one way to explain why the Nuggets haven’t won since last Monday in Portland, when they clinched their first division title in 18 seasons.

Last Saturday, when they were being blown out by Sacramento at home, coach George Karl was so upset with Anthony and Andre Miller, he benched them for the entire fourth quarter, saying they didn’t deserve to be on the court.

The next day, the coach said he was angry, questioned the team’s effort and said it was “hard to evaluate the lack of commitment in so many areas of basketball.”

Against Houston – a team that, unlike the Kings, had nothing to play for – the Nuggets weren’t much better. Miller and Anthony sat again for the fourth quarter. This time, though, Karl wasn’t angry. He said he was simply trying to give the guys some rest and figured the double-digit lead they built in the third quarter would hold up.

A mixed message? Maybe. A miscalculation? For sure.

Regardless of the meaning of the game or the motivation behind Karl’s decisions, it was hardly a championship effort from what is supposedly a championship team. Houston scored the last 11 points and the fans booed the Nuggets off the court after their collapse.

Karl was calm after the loss, citing the realities of the long season, one in which Camby, Kenyon Martin, Earl Boykins, Eduardo Najera, Nene and others have missed significant time with injuries.

“In a lot of ways, you’re playing the games like an exhibition season,” Karl said. “I think my team is hungry for the playoffs.”

Camby wasn’t so sure.

“Guys are not responding. We should have won this game,” he said.

Despite the recent losses, not all the news is bad.

Boykins (hand) and Najera (knee) should be back for the playoffs and Martin (knee), who traditionally brings his game up a notch for the postseason, is showing bursts of energy most of his teammates have lacked of late.

Then, there’s the draw. Even without home-court, the Nuggets like their matchup with either the Grizzlies or, more likely, the Clippers, in the first round.

And because they’re seeded third, they wouldn’t face either of the West’s 60-win teams, San Antonio and Dallas, until the conference finals.

The Mavericks have the second-best record, but are seeded fourth because they didn’t win their division.

The Nuggets did win theirs, and because of the awkwardness the scenario created, the NBA will likely look at an overhaul of its playoff system after the season.

That debate is for later. Right now, even with these supposed advantages, Denver doesn’t look like a team ready to make a deep run.

“Maybe we need a fresh challenge or gig,” Karl said. “Once we got the Northwest Division, we kind of drifted away from playing serious basketball.”

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