by Russ Bengtson

We don’t need no stinkin’ preliminaries.

PREGAME

Hour and a half before gametime. The Nuggets locker room is empty except for Von Wafer, Steven “Who?” Hunter, and Eddie Najera, who’s discussing his daughter with a local TV reporter. Kenyon Martin flashes in and just as quickly disappears after acquiring a headband from the equipment guy. Why, I have no idea.

There’s a clear Ziploc containing seven pills (vitamin supplements and the like) on Nene’s chair, and a squeeze bottle of Heinz ketchup in front of it. This explains an awful lot.

Over on the visitor’s side, Andre Owens stands by the curtain separating the trainer’s area from the rest of the locker room, a knowing smirk on his face. Suddenly he shouts “Roger Federer” through the curtain, and scurries back into the main locker room. Encouraged by David Harrison and, um, someone who doesn’t play very much, he yells “Mark Wahlberg” back over his shoulder. Laughter. Seconds later, a mussed and scruffy-looking Travis Diener emerges from the trainer’s area. “You guys have already named every white guy,” he remarks tiredly. Apparently this is ongoing. But hey, if you wanna make fun of white guys, the Pacers are the right team for you.

This summer I saw Troy Murphy wandering downtown Manhattan late one night, and as it turns out, he has an apartment in one of the new ultra-luxury buildings that have been popping up all over. Which answers the question of who can afford to live there: NBA players with $50 million-plus contracts.

Jermaine O’Neal, who’s been out with a lower leg-slash-knee injury, is out on the court for a good half-hour before the game, working up a sweat, at one point bending down and grabbing the bottom of his shorts. He’s running reps on either side of the basket, coming off the baseline from one side of the lane to the other, catching an entry pass, spinning, and either putting up a soft jumper off the glass or dunking with both hands. He looks pretty good to me. As he heads off the court I catch him for the briefest of moments: “Two more games,” he says. Oh well.

Food report: Ridiculous. Garlic-black pepper roast beef being HAND CARVED on the spot. Beer-cheese soup. A baked potato station with bacon, sour cream, chives, butter and shredded cheddar. Cauliflower and broccoli (also covered in cheese). Corn on the cob. Oh yeah, and chocolate cream pie. You may not live long covering the Nuggets, but at least you’ll die happy. A+. (One weird miss—in the PEPSI CENTER, the Pepsi is flat. Whoops. Thank god for the iced tea dispenser.)

I happen to walk through the tunnel to find my seat just as the Nuggets are readying to enter the court. Najera is kicking a basketball around like a soccer ball—and loses it. Marcus Camby—who left the morning shootaround after roughly 10 minutes because of flu-like symptoms—looks like death warmed over, left out overnight, then served stale.

Whoever had the idea to play Masta Ace over the in-arena PA during warm-ups is awesome.

Players pause to throw mini basketballs into the crowd. J.R. Smith has a 1.000 completion percentage.

Freeway, Kanye…

A quintet from Cache La Poudre Junior High does a great job with the national anthem.

The place is pretty empty—maybe half full?

Lights out for introductions, overblown video, etc., etc. Just once someday I’d love to see the home team introduced just like the visitors. Just announce the names and get it over with already. Um, not that I’m jaded or anything.

CAN YOU FEEL IT? appears to be the Nuggets theme this season. Why yes, I can.

Starters: Diawara, Kleiza, Camby, AI, Carmelo

The cheerleaders are wearing rather jarring white and hot-pink uniforms. I’m not complaining, though.

Many players have charity seating areas for kids and stuff. The best by far is “Nene’s Niños.”

FIRST QUARTER

Camby puts his head down, goes right at Jeff Foster. And misses.

Li’l Dun, money. Many a shootaround question for coach Karl centered around the resurgent Mike Dunleavy, Jr. Linas Klezias was asked about Dunleavy as well, and from his answer, you’d think he’d never seen him play before. Ah, evasion. It’s also worth noting that Li’l Dun ain’t so little anymore.

Back to the game, and apparently we’re having shot clock issues right off the bat. Play has been stopped for it to be reset twice in three possessions.

Melo’s first jumper of the night rims out.

Dunleavy goes right at Camby, converts the layup while protecting the ball with his body.

Camby misses a layup over Foster, and Foster scores on the other end.

Melo is working against Danny Granger. He misses the baseline jumper, fouls Granger on the drive on the other end.

Tinsley whips a cross-court pass from up top to Granger on the sideline for three. Pacers lead 9-0.

Iverson loses the inbounds pass, and it’s Tinsley to Foster to Granger for the dunk. 11-0, Pacers. Time out, Nuggets as the boos start. Am I still in New York? Are the Knicks playing tonight? FIRE ISIAH!

AI drives and kicks out to Diawara, who travels. Granger, baseline J, good. 13-0.

Camby is stripped up top by Tinsley, who takes it all the way for the uncontested layup. This is getting uglier by the second. 15-0.

Defensive three seconds, Pacers. Najera and Anthony Carter check in for Denver. Melo hits the free throw to finally put the Nuggets on the board with four minutes gone in the first. They miss the jumper omn the ensuing possession, and Najera fouls…someone.

Carter steal, all the way in for the layup. Whoever picked Anthony Carter to score the first Nuggets field goal of the game, well, you probably don’t exist.

Hello, Troy Murphy.

Li’l Dun with an EASY layup from Tinsley, who already has five assists.

Iverson misses the driving layup, and Camby fouls Dunleavy rather than give up the dunk. Looked close to clean. But it’s still 21-3.

Another Nuggets turnover. Granger misses a reverse layup, the Pacers reset. And come up empty.

Iverson drives through the entire Pacer roster, misses the layup, but is fouled by Murphy. One, Marquis Daniels, two. The Nuggets have five points with 5:25 to go in the first.

PACER turnover.

Iverson jumper over Tinsley. Murphy dunk.

Anthony spins baseline, is audibly fouled by Dunleavy. Hits one of two.

Carter with another runout layup. He’s got four of the Nuggets 10 points. It’s 23-10, Pacers.

Oh man, I totally forgot about Rocky. THE BEST MASCOT IN THE GAME! Although he can’t hit the over-the-head halfcourt shot even though the timeout seems suspiciously long. Rim, though.

Diener! Marquis Daniels, layup.

Melo catch, spin, drive, TOUGH layup in traffic.

Pacer turnover, AI finds Najera underneath, nothing doing. Inbounds, to Melo on the wing, to Carter for the jumper at the end of the shot clock. Wet. This is AC’s world, we’re just living in it.

Diener can’t hit the three—one wonders why he’s taking it in the first place. Murph can’t control the rebound, Najera gets it to Iverson who is fouled on the drive, J.R. Smith comes in for Camby. One of two for AI.

Anthony to Najera in the corner, who drives baseline and gets fouled by Harrison. Tinsley comes back in for Diener. Both for Eddie. 25-18, 2:30 to go.

Harrison gets position, gets the perfect feed from Tinsley, is hammered from behind by Najera. That’s two on Eddie, who goes out for Kleiza. Harrison coolly misses both.

Kleiza, contortionist layup in the paint. The Pacers turn it over, but Tinsley breaks up Melo to AI back to Melo. And Daniels scores. J.R. Smith answers with a three, 27-23. Tinsley misses from deep, Kleiza gets a layup, and it’s a two-point game. Call it a comeback.

J.R. Smith tries to draw a mid-court charge on Tinsley, a play that rarely works. It doesn’t work. JT hits a pair.

J.R. Smith misses a layup and his own tip-in. Tinsley hits a floater in the paint.

Iverson misses a layup, winds up laid out on his back for the third time this quarter.

Pacers turn it over, Melo hits the back of the rim from 3/4 court. 31-25 Pacers after 1. The Pacers are shooting 62 percent from the floor.

SECOND QUARTER

Melo gets a blow to start the quarter.

J.R. Smith plays the passing lane as visions of breakaway dunks dance in his head. Can’t quite get it, though.

Foster misses a baseline three, Kleiza misses a 22-foot two. Shawne Williams heads to the line, fouled by Linas. Hits both.

Carter hits Iverson who stops his drive with Dunleavy in the lane, steps back, hits the jumper. He’s got eight.

Li’l Dun answers.

Iverson is erased by Williams, Kleiza recovers, scores.

Shawne! Kid can play.

Melo’s back at 9:27. He is in the brand-new Melo M4s tonight.

Kleiza hits a pair.

Anthony is doubled, turns with elbows out. Uh-oh. Li’l Dun goes down (if he makes a face, I don’t see it), offensive foul, Melo.

Kareem Rush, airball three from the left side. Wide open, too. And he was cash money in warm-ups.

Pacer miss, Smith rebounds, steps out of bounds on the baseline.

Melo strong to the hole. Bull in a china shop. Fouled by Rush, and I’m not sure if he even notices. Adds the extra. 37-34, Pacers, 8:17.

Kleiza drives, in the paint to Melo—who’s surrounded—goes up, fouled by Diener. One of two for Melo.

Granger shuffles his feet in the paint, Anthony hits a jumper over Granger. He’s heatin’ up. And we’re tied at 37.

Williams for three.

Melo catches an oop, but pushes off first. That’s three on Melo. He sits for AI.

Shawne Williams misses a three, as does Kleiza from the korner.

Tinsley drives baseline all the way under the basket, to Dunleavy, who charges over Camby.

Najera for Carter.

J.R. Smith drive, blocking foul on Williams.

I’m not sure exactly what each team is shooting from the floor this quarter, but it’s not good.

Offensive kick ball. Don’t see that too often. David Harrison is, uh, not talented.

Rocky is absolutely non-stop.

Marquis Daniels is wearing—oh wait, offensive foul on Harrison—yellow calf wraps on both legs that look like soccer shinguards. Actually, combine the huge yellow panels on his shoes, and it looks like he’s wearing gladiator sandals over yellow socks.

Marcus Camby blocks the living hell of a Danny Granger layup attempt. Out of bounds to the Pacers, and Harrison scores.

Najera, corner three. Daniels answers 2/3 of the way. And Najera comes back with another three from up top. Nuggets lead.

J.R. Smith drives, goes behind the back to Kleiza for the dunk, but runs someone over in the process. Offensive foul, and Mr. Smith Goes To the Bench.

Troy Story! Pacers by one.

Iverson drive-by, fading, no good. They get it back on another Camby block, Tinsley ties up AI in the paint. One of two for AI, tied at 46.

Harrison misses from close (putting on a high arc trying to avoid Camby), Kleiza leaks out, gets ahead, but Granger gets back in time and swats it. He gets called for the foul, but still. A for effort.

Air Guitar Cam featuring Rocky to Quiet Riot’s “Cum on Feel The Noize.” A touching (and almost certainly coincidental) tribute to the recently deceased Kevin DuBrow.

Kleiza hits both, Nuggets up two.

The Nuggets are running some weird lineups—like this one. Carter, Iverson, Najera, Kleiza, Camby.

Smith in for Najera. Still weird.

Shawne Williams, corner three. He’s got 10.

Daniels in the lane after a Williams miss (from three).

Troy Murphy runs over J.R. Smith on the baseline under the basket after a Nugget miss. Smith goes down hard for the second time tonight (the first time was at midcourt on a play I missed). He’s a little shaken up.

Williams, from 21. Wet. He leads all scorers. Never woulda guessed. Under 30 seconds.

Iverson brings it up. Runs it down to under 10, splits the Rush/Daniels double, is fouled by Rush. To the line with 6.6 ticks. Diawara’s back in after a LOOOONG break. Camby checks out and heads straight to the locker room. Iverson hits both.

Iverson swipes the inbounds pass, but the Nuggets can’t get anything to go down except their field goal percentage.

HALFTIME. Pacers up 56-50

The Nuggets have THREE mini-blimps: a Coors can, a rolled-up Denver Post, and a generic blimp-shaped (and taxi-themed) one advertising Heidi’s Brooklyn Deli.

Dunleavy misses two “last” warm-up free throws before connecting on the third and running back to the pre-quarter huddle. For a second I thought he might still be out there on the line as the game resumed.

THIRD QUARTER

For Denver, the starters start.

Dunleavy is fouled by Kleiza right off the bat. And he heads to the line. Hits both. Good he got those last misses out of his system.

Melo. Baseline. Good.

Tinsley. Travel. Turnover.

Foster driving layup from Tinsley.

Melo with his first miss in a while, Dunleavy misses, Tinsley picks off a cross-court pass, Dunleavy gets the bunny. Pacers by 10.

Diawara misses a three, Rush rebounds, Tinsley misses.

Iverson drives, draws contact, is NOT happy. Stays on his own end to complain, Dunleavy scores on the ensuing two on three, and AI gets tagged with the tech for getting the last word (and gesture).

Li’l Dun misses the technical free throw, AI applauds LOUDLY.

AI drives into the lane, puts up a shot, ends up sliding across the floor on his back, and the foul is called on Jeff Foster. Gee, didn’t see that one coming. Iverson hits both, he’s got 13.

Pacer turnover on a pass to no one. Melo misses from the corner, Camby cleans it up.

Granger miss, Camby rebound. Ahead to Iverson. Iverson jumper off a curl.

Iverson dives to the floor to try and finish a strip of Tinsley, can’t quite get it. Granger offensive foul, Tinsley fouls AI on a three. And Jim O’Brien gets t’ed up. Iverson hits the first, the tech, the second, misses the third. Yells while it’s still on the way. He’s got 18, but is only three of 12 from the floor.

Defensive three seconds on the Pacers. Melo gets to shoot this one. Wet.

Camby backtap, Iverson three. Nuggets lead 65-64.

Briefly. Foster with the putback of a Granger miss.

Pacer delay of game, tech, Melo again. 66-all, 6:46

Melo, past Granger, over Rush.

AC, from Iverson. 70-66, Denver. For the record, Carter has eight points, five steals, five assists, and six rebounds.

I HATE “Cotton Eyed Joe.” Just thought you should know.

The cheerleaders have changed into wifebeaters and jeans. Odd. It’s like they were headed home when someone told them “no, it’s only halftime.”

Granger, offensive foul. That’s four on Granger. Camby’s drawn a whole bunch of charges. Sick as he looks, standing under the hoop does seem like it would be his best move tonight.

Carmelo Anthony.

Carter strips Murphy up top, but is called for the (dubious) foul. (After the game he says cheerfully, “I got away with a lot, so I didn’t mind the call on that one.”)

Marquis blocked by Camby.

Gets it the next time down, though.

Granger tries to draw a charge on Melo checking him one on one on the perimeter, Jack Nies calls the block. That’s five on an irate DG. Out for Harrison.

Camby draws ANOTHER charge, this time on Marquis. Trooper.

Carter three over Dunleavy, and the Nuggets lead by seven.

Murphy cuts it to five, Najera misses inside, and a defensive three-seconds gives the Pacers one more freebie. Except Dunleavy misses another tech. Why is he shooting these again?

Iverson draws a charge on Marquis. Oh, Marquis.

AI, STRONG leg-kick three. No. Murphy gets Najera in the air, foul. Both.

Melo baseline fallaway over Murphy—doesn’t matter. Line drive, drops. So strong. Misses the free throw, though.

Li’l Dun, runout. Off a FREE THROW. Denver’s transition defense is the opposite of good.

AC!

Harrison with a HUGE dunk (for him), hangs on rim, kicks Najera in face. No tech.

Kleiza.

Harrison goes up again, goes down hard on a would-be block from behind and there’s a foul called—wait, it’s on Tinsley? And he fouled Carter? Going the other way? Jim O’Brien and I are confused.

Smith in for Melo, 1:22 left.

Najera goes up for a baseline dunk on Harrison, clears with his off hand, called for the offensive foul. This is not a popular call. Yet it appears to be the correct one.

Daniels behind the D. Ain’t no future in Iverson’s frontin’. Good.

AI misses, Dunleavy with a layup.

Kleiza misses a corner three, Dunleavy comes out with it, finds Shawne Williams on the baseline for a dunk with 2.7 to go. Sigh. End of three, it’s 83-82 Nuggets.

The Nuggets have a senior citizen dance team called the “Silver Hotties.” I don’t want to talk about it.

FOURTH QUARTER

It’s the Key Bank Key Quarter! Never would have guessed. There is, of course, a “Shake your keys!” command, so it sounds like jingle bells up in here.

Shawne Williams, layup. He’s got 16.

Harrison can’t handle the Tinsley entry pass. Shocking.

Carter miss.

Dunleavy, layup. Pacers by three.

Shawne Williams misses a three from up top, Marquis gets the rebound and flips it up and in. Time out, Denver.

TRIPLE-DOUBLE WATCH: Tinsley needs two points and three boards. Carter needs two of the following: four assists, four boards, or five steals.

Carter rebound, Camby misses a long “jumper”

Melo, carry, after perhaps the worst Pacer possession since the merger.

Dunleavy, glass. He’s got 24 on 10 of 15 shooting.

Melo for three.

Shawne Williams misses a three badly, Iverson rebounds, is fouled by Daniels. Kleiza checks in for Carter.

Melo miss, Murphy rebound, Tinsley dribbles Kleiza to sleep, then shoots over him. Wet. The Nuggets turn it over.

Dunleavy three from up top. 27.

Najera fakes the three, drives in for the layup.

Dun misses a three, gets hit by Melo on the follow-through, no call. No matter, because the Nuggets can’t do anything, Murphy with the run-out dunk. Pacers by nine. Tinsley, no.

Iverson misses a three, Murphy rebounds.

KLEIZA. Catch on the baseline, dribble up and under, big two-handed dunk. Camby swats Foster (his fifth block of the night), Nuggets miss a three. Tinsley hits a three from the corner, Pacers up 100-92 with 4:09 to go.

Iverson throws a skip pass to Carter, who hits off glass without calling it. Pacers turn it over, Melo goes up too strong. Camby catches, puts it back up, fouled by Foster. Misses the first, hits the second. Five-point game.

Nice ball movement by the Pacers, Granger catches it up top…and travels. Did I mention he has five fouls and has missed his last seven shots?

Offensive foul, Camby.

Time out, 2:55.

The Pacers are up five despite their 24 turnovers because the Nuggets are playing the worst defense in NBA history (Marcus Camby excepted). It’s possible that the Pacers have more points in the paint than they do total points. Someone alert Harvey Pollack.

Granger gets off the schneid with a20-footer.

Iverson to Carter who misses, goes after his own rebound, and takes out Troy Murphy. Their first team foul of the quarter.

Williams gets Camby in the air underneath, draws the foul. Pacers call time to ice their own free-throw shooter. 2:07 to go.

The Nuggets are shooting 33.3% from the floor. Rocky has played all, uh, 141 minutes.

Williams finally gets to the line. Misses the first, hits the second.

Melo around Willams, misses everything, Camby cleans up.

Dunleavy misses a layup, Iverson comes out with it, Melo misses in the lane.

Pacers are slowing it up. Dunleavy WIDE OPEN three. That should ice this one. Pacers lead 106-97 with 57.2 left. That’s 30 for Dunleavy on 12 of 19 shooting. Time out.

Rocky tries the backwards half-court shot again, hits on his second attempt this time.

Iverson three, yes. Kleiza fouls in the backcourt, non-shooting.

Tinsley, to Dun, back to Tinsley. Foul on Anthony—after letting 12 seconds melt off the clock. I don’t get it. Tinsley hits one of two.

Bang! J.R. Smith three over Dunleavy, Tinsley fouled again. I love when teams start playing with a sense of urgency down nine with under a minute left.

Tinsley hits one of two, Iverson gets a layup, Camby fouls Williams. 21.4 seconds left, three-point game. Four-point game. Five-point game.

Smith hits another three over Granger, Iverson fouls Williams. Two point game. Three. And the Pacers…call time? OK. Williams looks back at the bench with a confused look on his face. This has been a supremely weird game.

Williams is short with the second! Melo rebounds! Denver calls time! 11 seconds left! Exclamation point!

LOUD NOISES!

Nuggets inbound, run around—skip the two—and Granger fouls with 6.3 left. Inbounds again. Granger’s out. And Smith is fouled by Dunleavy on a corner three with 2.7 ticks left. Iverson quiets the crowd. Smith hits the first. The second. And misses the third. Williams rebounds, is fouled with one second left. Smith crouches down in the frontcourt, distraught. The Nuggets are out of time outs. Williams misses the first. Hits the second. And time runs out on the inbounds.

Final score, Pacers 112, Nuggets 110.

POSTGAME

If you’ve read this far, congratulations. But that’s all you get.