60/30: No. 16, Pepsi Center

I raced straight from Utah to my hotel in Denver the night after my visit to ESA in order to watch the NBA’s Game of the Year, Heat-Cavs in Cleveland. I made it there just in time for the player introductions, which of course turned out to be the most suspenseful part of the entire game. Oh well, at least the Suns-Warriors game afterwards was decent, and then I had the entire next day to spend in Denver. I went to another Roadfood-recommended lunch place — Buckhorn Exchange, known for their Rocky Mountain oysters. Didn’t go for those, since it breaks my personal no-brains-or-genitals code of culinary ethics (the two things I wouldn’t be cool with anyone eating off my corpse), but I did try rattlesnake for the first time. Like chicken (of course), but chewier and more succulent. I can dig it.

Also made my way to the Red Rocks amphitheater, where rock greats from U2 to John Tesh have made live music history. I tried to run back up the stairs after walking on stage and was cruelly reminded of how I’ve spent the last month sitting in a car seat occasionally moving my right foot up and down. Rocks were pretty, though.

Anyway, I made it to the Pepsi Center with plenty of time to spare before tip-off, for once. With the Clippers in town and the Nuggets on a five-game hot stretch, I liked my chances at starting up the first winning streak of my trip so far. I also predicted something of a barnburner of a game — not sure why, really, just had that good feeling. I was due, perhaps.

The Stadium: Like no other building so far on my trip, the Pepsi Center does a lousy job of announcing its presence with authority. Clearly, there’s a stadium to be had in between the Broncos’ Invesco Field and the Rockies’ Coors Field, but it’s almost impossible to find clues as to what the stadium actually is until you get inside. I mean, you can get the Pepsi part of it from the weird statue display out in front, but the building’s actual name is sparsely displayed, and only flags on lamp posts identify the building’s home teams. There wasn’t much more character on the inside, either — some interesting food options, but stylistically uninteresting, and without much of interest relating to the actual home teams. (Again, no history — come on, guys, at least throw up a blown-up still of Deke clutching the ball at the end of the Sonics upset or something.)

To the stadium’s credit, though, another fine, fine gift shop — one that actually does do the franchise history proud with its variety of jerseys, hats and t-shirts. (They had about a half-dozen different t-shirt color variations of the old 80s skyline logo, or as I always looked at it, the Brontosaurus-and-stereo-levels logo.) But like much of the stadium, the gift shop was largely focused on the Colorado Avalanche, who share the building, and as far as I can tell, outrank the Nugs in Colorado precedence. I saw more people in Avs gear at the Nuggets game than even Broncos merch, and I saw the “A” logo on a bunch of bumper stickers driving around the city. Hey, still the most recent (and frequent) of Colorado champs, I suppose. Hard to compete with that.

The Game: The barnburner did not materialize. It was a fairly close game throughout, at least, but the up-and-down, back-and-forth heavyweight (welterweight? featherweight?) bout I was expecting and hoping for was not to be. For one thing, no one was making shots — the teams were scoring a fair amount, but it was seemingly all at the free-throw line, where nary a SportsCenter highlight has ever been birthed. None of the game’s major stars were really on their A-game, and aside from a nice gun-holstering swag move from J.R. Smith after a made three and a big fourth quarter surge for Brian Cook (redemption for last Sunday!), even the game’s spades of bench knuckleheads failed to bring the excitement. And the game’s ultimate highlight — a Ty Lawson three-quarter-court buzzer-beater banker to end the third — happened when I was out getting an order of freshly-made mini-donuts. (Won’t complain about that, though, those donuts were fucking right.)

Watching Carmelo Anthony for the second time of my trip, I am now utterly baffled how this guy ever ends up scoring less than 30 points in a game. Not that he was all that impressive on Friday night — in fact, he was cold as Lou Gramm, making his first three-pointer and missing just about every jumper he took after that. But I heard Nugs coach George Karl talking pre-game about how players end up scoring 30 in a game not by making shots, but by getting layups and getting to the free throw line. Karl was talking about Blake Griffin, but whether he meant to be or not, he was really talking about Melo, who juggernauted his way to the line 18 times and powered through enough layups on top of it to end up with 26 points in a performance that most witnesses would probably describe as sub-par (including a 2-12 start to the game from the field). Nothing was going right for Anthony, and he still ended as the game’s high man. If this guy was actually hitting his jumper, he might be able to go off for 33 points in a single quarter or something.

As for Griffin, the game’s other main attraction, his streak of sexy stat lines came to something of an end with his 17 and 12  (7-18 FG) — hardly a dud, but the rookie sensation’s first game in weeks to not be a 20-10 on at least 50% shooting. Nonetheless, I noticed a particular skill of Blake’s that had never really struck me before — his passing. Over the course of the game, the Clippers’ big man found a series of lane-cutters with pinpoint feeds that didn’t always result in hoops (only three dimes for the game), but always put his teammates in a realistic scoring position. Of all of Griffin’s frightening skills — and it’s already quite an impressive resume — this is the one that would probably scare me the most as a rival coach. It’s only a matter of time before teams start doubling Blake reflexively, and just a fraction into his rookie season, he can already pass out with disturbing precision. I mean … yikes.

The Nuggets got out to a double-digit lead in the fourth, and though the Clips battled back (mostly thanks to the previously mentioned Cook Diesel and a consecutive series of largely-unconstested Eric Gordon drives to the basket), the Nuggets prevailed at the charity stripe (where else?) and secured the 109-104 victory.

That’s right: Two dubs in a row, bitches.

The Fans: A disappointing turnout from the Denver faithful. I was shocked at the half-filled lower bowl at tip-off, and that was before I saw the multitude of positively empty sections up top. I guess there’s always the excuse of playing the Clippers, but it was a Friday night, and with Griffin playing the way he has, the Clips being in town is no longer an acceptable justification for half-empty home arenas. There were some nice hometown touches (a big ovation for every Birdman entrance and highlight play, the “ME-LO!” call-and-response chant), and it filled up decently over the course of the game (by the end, it got legitimately loud with distaste for some questionable Clippers-favored ref calls late in the fourth), but still — a perennial playoff contender with a top ten franchise player deserves better than this.

Of course, said top 10 player might not be with the franchise very long. “There have been some pretty dead crowds this season,” blogger Nate Timmons of Denver Stiffs told me. “I think the Melo-Drama is really having an effect on Nuggets Nation.” Sean, a fan who I talked to, more or less confirmed this. “Waiting to see on Melo,” he answered when I asked what he thought of the team this year. “Overall, I think people are uncommitted because they don’t know whether he’s gonna be here or not.” Nobody I talked to seemed particularly confident that Denver would be able to keep Anthony long-term — “I hope so” was the most affirmative answer I got, from a fan named Karen who spitefully answered “His wife” when I asked what Melo’s decision would likely hinge on. “If the Nuggets prove to be a playoff contender and maybe make a ‘Pau Gasol to the Lakers’ type of trade during the season that pushes the team back to elite status I think there is a good chance Melo will stay,” said Nate. “That’s a tall task for the Nuggets front office because there probably isn’t a Pau Gasol type player to be had, but the Nuggets are certainly looking.”

Ultimately, the fans are fairly positive in Denver, about subjects ranging from new addition Al Harrington (“He looks mean,” a fan named Joe said. “That’s important”) to the chances of Chauncey Billups retiring a Nugget (“I think he likes it here,” said Karen. “And the fans, I think he likes the support”). But ultimately, it all comes back to Melo. “If we get Kenyon back, and stay together, we might be able to do something,” said Sean when asked about the team’s playoff chances. “But still, it’s with Melo, if he’s here … if not…” Ultimately, it’s a situation that remains in need of monitoring for all involved. “I knew this thing would be a zoo and it’s cooled off just a bit for now,” said Nate. “But like a good rollercoaster there are surely more thrills to come.”

Most Popular Jerseys: Melo for the current, and Iverson for the throwbacks. Couple of Alex Englishes in the house as well, and one fan admirably keeping the Marcus Camby flame alive.

Also Worth Noting: The Nugs’ house DJ — DJ Bedz, apparently — was awesome. Before the game, he was playing a golden-age rap set that worked in EPMD, Souls of Mischief and Public Enemy, among others. Not often that you get a house DJ at a pro sporting event that doesn’t pander, but this guy was for real. I want him to play at my bar mitzvah.

Local Pop Culture Tie-Ins: Cartman showed up on the Jumbo in a Nuggets jersey (or just a shirt that said the word “Nuggets” on it) to lead the crowd in a “DE-FENSE!” chant. Never seen the “South Park” boys repping for anyone but the Broncos on the show, but I guess the Nugs have forced their way into the conversation in recent years.

Swag Acquired: Had to get one of those 80s logo shirts — white with a blue collar. Couldn’t resist getting a Melo headband from the counter, too.

Sirius / XM Jam of the Day:


Yes – “Leave It”. (Classic Rewind, XM 49). Non-”Owner of a Lonely Heart” single off Yes’ “90125.” More awesome harmonies, less awesome drum-and-synth breaks.

Onto Phoenix, to continue my hot streak in 70-degree-plus weather. Things are looking up in December.