Ask Kenyon Martin enough questions and you understand he's rarely a guy to make excuses. He knows exactly why the Denver Nuggets are trailing their opening-round series against the San Antonio Spurs 2-1 going into Monday's game in Denver.
"We didn't get the job done," Martin says. "We did everything to put ourselves in a position to win. And we just didn't do it."
Carmelo Anthony is cut from the same cloth, choosing not to blame his scoring slump he's 6.5 points per game under his regular-season average on the grabbing and holding by Spurs guard Bruce Bowen.
"It's playoff basketball," Anthony says. "Everybody's getting clobbered. That's the nature of the game."
And the nature of this series is this: The Nuggets face their first must-win game, trying to avoid a 3-1 deficit to the Spurs. And if the hottest team in the NBA over the second half of the season wants to avoid a first-round exit in this second season, the forward tandem of Martin and Anthony is going to have to man-up.
True, Martin outscored Tim Duncan 18-11 in their power forward matchup in San Antonio's 86-78 Game 3 win on Saturday. And, true, Martin was solid in a defensive scheme that forced Duncan to miss 14 of his 19 shots. But in a game in which Duncan played just 27 minutes (five minutes in the first half after picking up three early fouls), Martin's four rebounds in 39 minutes were the fewest among Denver's starters.
True, Anthony's 19 points on Saturday was his best scoring effort this series. And, true, Anthony's eight free throws on Saturday (he had two total free throws in the first two games of the series) were a sign that he was attempting to get to the basket more instead of settling for jumpers. But in the fourth quarter with the game still within grasp, the Nuggets' regular-season leading scorer attempted just three shots.
"It's tough because they're keying on me," Anthony says. "All I can do is try to be patient."
But this is not time for Anthony or the Nuggets to be patient. Patience has Anthony, through three games this series, averaging 14.3 ppg and shooting 40.0 percent from the field well below his season averages of 20.8 ppg and 43.1 percent shooting. Martin's playoff numbers (12.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg) are also down from the regular season (15.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg).
"No doubt, they're a great defensive team," Martin says. "But whether it's more physical or not, we still have to get the job done."
The Nuggets have shown they're capable. With George Karl's taking control of the team midway through the season, the Nuggets finished the season with 32 wins in their last 40 games and went from a team in 11th place (six games out of the final playoff spot) in the Western Conference with a dismal playoff outlook to seventh place and the opening round matchup with the second-seeded Spurs.
Saturday's loss was just the second at the Pepsi Center since Karl took over. Which is why the Game 3 defeat left the Nuggets disappointed, but not devastated.
"We got the first game on their home court, and they got the first game on our home court," Martin says. "We win [Monday], and everything will be all right."
For it to be all right, Martin's going to have to put up some true power forward numbers. On the surface, Martin's rebounding numbers this series could easily be explained by his matchup with Duncan. Or his deferring to Marcus Camby (14 boards in Game 3). But then you look at the five-year career of a guy considered one of the most ferocious power forwards in the NBA, you see that Martin's never averaged double-digit rebounds; in his best season (2003-04), he averaged 9.4 rpg and his career average is 7.6.
And for it to be all right, Anthony's going to have to trade in his patience for aggression. If his jumper's not falling, Anthony's going to have to put his head down and barrel his way to the rim. If he can't get to the basket, Anthony is going to have to establish himself as a playmaker. For the few times he's managed to shake free of Bowen, only to run into the likes of Duncan and Robert Horry, Anthony has just three assists in the three games.
Think about it: Duncan, with the exception of his dominance in Game 2, has been just an ordinary player in this series. Tony Parker, with the exception of his solid effort in Game 2, has been a non-factor. That's reason enough to believe the Nuggets should be leading this series instead of being down, 2-1.
While the Nuggets look at the loss on Saturday as an opportunity wasted, they see a potential win Monday as confidence gained.
Says Anthony: "We protect home court, and anything can happen."
Martin's more direct and to the point: "Gotta win, man. Bottom line."
Jerry Bembry is a senior NBA writer for ESPN The Magazine.