So many things have gone right for the Denver Nuggets this season.
There's the trade that brought Chauncey Billups back to Denver, the return to health of big men Nene and Kenyon Martin. The maturation of Carmelo Anthony, the development of J.R. Smith.
But it's the acquisition of Chris "Birdman" Andersen and his spectacular play after missing almost two seasons because of a drug suspension that has the Nuggets doing so well, coach George Karl suggested.
The Nuggets are the second seed in the West and they have a first-round date with Andersen's former team, the New Orleans Hornets, beginning Sunday at the Pepsi Center.
It's the first time Denver has started a playoff series at home since 1988.
Andersen is one part of the Nuggets' frontcourt trio of Comeback Kids, along with Nene, who returned from testicular cancer, and Kenyon Martin, who's overcome microfracture surgery to both knees.
"You have a cancer survivor that has been close to an All-Star year. You have a guy that has been maligned here because of his contract and now finally gives the foundation to a team that everybody expected of him," Karl said. "And then you have Chris Andersen, who, when I put in the game, there is a spirit to him walking up to the scorer's table. That doesn't happen in pro ball.
"Even the haters like Chris Andersen."
Andersen's ban lasted almost two years after he tested positive for an undisclosed "drug of abuse." He said he spent his time away from the game cleaning up his life and plotting his return.
"I kept a positive mind through it all. I stayed optimistic. I knew I wanted to come back and to be in the position I'm in," Andersen said. "Being on a team in second place in the Western Conference is just one of the rewards that I got through the hard work. The hard work paid off."
Karl was worried last summer when the Nuggets had to ditch defensive stud Marcus Camby to save $20 million, half of it in salary and the other half in luxury tax.
But Andersen, whose one-year deal is worth $998,398, has replaced Camby's shot-blocking and defensive disruption while adding a healthy dollop of exuberance that has made him a fan favorite.
One enthusiast even started a Web site called bringbackthebirdman.com, encouraging the Nuggets to re-sign Andersen, an unrestricted free agent this summer, to a multiyear deal.
"It's better than firegeorgekarl.com, I know that," Karl cracked.
But he's not joking when he insists the Nuggets wouldn't be where they are without the Birdman, who began his career in Denver, then had a breakout season in New Orleans in 2004-05 before his career was derailed by drugs.
Andersen returned to the Hornets late last season and played in five games, blocking four shots. Then, several teams offered him the same NBA minimum contract, but he wanted to play in Denver, where he lives.
So he returned to the Nuggets and helped them forget all about Camby's departure.
Karl considers himself lucky.
"It's a gift from the basketball gods above," Karl said. "No one predicted us to (have this much success). No one predicted that Chris Andersen could ever play as well as he's played. We had him in camp, we worked him out for 10 days before we signed him.
"And we never thought we'd get this. This has been a gift."
Andersen averaged 2.46 blocks per game, second in the NBA to Orlando Magic All-Star Dwight Howard's 2.92 and just ahead of the 2.13 blocks-per-game Camby averaged for the Los Angeles Clippers.
But get this: Andersen did his damage in 20.6 minutes per game, Howard clocked 35.7 minutes a night and Camby 31.
Andersen also averaged 6.4 points and 6.2 boards.
It's the intangibles, though, that make him so popular, his willingness to throw himself around seemingly without regard to his health and impervious to pain, to take charges, the electrify the crowd with his spark, spirit and spunk.
"He has an amazing way of bringing energy to the game," Karl said. "And it doesn't have a lot of polish to it. It's kind of all over the place and yet when you watch it on film, it actually has a better discipline than you think it does. He's been great. There's some games I can't wait for the 5-minute mark so I can start rotating."
And sending in Andersen, with all his colorful tattoos and spiky hair, to do his thing.
As far as Karl's concerned, this Nuggets season would have been one for the birds if not for the Birdman.
"I think we'd be lost," Karl said. "I mean, I don't know how we would have played small. We wouldn't have been able to play big most of the year. He's replaced, statistically, the shot block from Marcus. He's not the same type of player, but in some ways he's actually more."
(Copyright 2009, The Associated Press, All Rights Reserved)
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