DENVER Edvard Munchs iconic portrait of existential angst, The Scream, was auctioned off last week for close to 120 million, enough to bankroll an NBA team for a season and leave enough change for a chateau in the French countryside.
Meanwhile, pro basketballs face of anguish and torment was on display Sunday night, as George Karl sat at an interview table not in a full-throated shriek, but rubbing his forehead and grimacing, not yet ready to contemplate another season that appears headed toward an early ending.
Thats where Karls Nuggets sit after the Lakers 92-88 victory gave them a 3-1 advantage and an opportunity to close out the series Tuesday when it returns to Los Angeles.
Except for a run to the 2009 Western Conference finals, where they were vanquished by the Lakers, the Nuggets have been bounced from the playoffs in the first round in every other one of Karls seven seasons before this one. In those other six seasons, the Nuggets have won but six playoff games.
Losing always gets old. Losing is no fun, said Karl, who seemed to be trying to buck himself up as much as his team. I love . . . Im not unhappy with my team. Im not unhappy with where were at. I wish it was 2-2, but I still think weve got a series to play and its going to be fun on Tuesday night. I think its a powerful challenge to us and I dont think its an impossible challenge.
Karl is the NBAs winningest active coach, and has been widely viewed as one of the games sharpest minds since he became a head coach with Cleveland at the age of 33. But his career might also be characterized as a lifetime of pushing boulders uphill or a case study in the cruelty of the basketball gods.
He had been exiled to Spain after quitting at Golden State. He became the first coach of a No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 8. Twice his teams have lost Game 7 of conference finals and his one trip to the NBA Finals ended before it began in 1996, when Chicago won the first three games.
A promising season disintegrated two years ago when he was diagnosed with throat cancer and missed the end of the regular season and playoffs. (He has since recovered). Another series began with a comic metaphor a team bus catching fire en route to the arena, leaving the Nuggets on the side of the freeway awaiting another vehicle.
It presaged another early flameout.
Georges career has been filled with peaks and valleys, and I think thats molded him, said Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, who considers Karl a brilliant coach and a dear friend since they played together at North Carolina.
They not only shared the same roots, but the same car a green 1969 Nova that required pliers to turn on the headlights and whose speakers were housed in a cigar box in the backseat. Karl, when he left for the ABA, sold the car to Kupchak for 225.
Other than that it was a wonderful car, Kupchak said. I got my moneys worth.
Sundays game had to be reminiscent for both Kupchak and Karl of the 2009 conference finals, when Trevor Arizas steals allowed the Lakers to escape with a pair of victories early in the series. This time, it was other unusual suspects, Steve Blake and Ramon Sessions sinking a pair of 3-pointers in the final minute, which snapped a tie.
Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol instead became the role players Gasol setting a crunching pick on Danilo Gallinari and delivering the pass to Sessions and Bryant delivering the pass to Blake.
The Nuggets had their own opportunities to rue. Ty Lawson missed an open 3-pointer, Al Harrington missed a layup which led to an offensive goaltending by Andre Miller and Miller blew an alley-oop play all in the waning minutes.
The way the Nuggets floundered at the finish raised a familiar and painful question: Can a team win in the playoffs without a transcendent talent? Not since Detroit won in 2004 has a team won without a star player who could carry it at critical moments.
The Nuggets last season traded away such a talent, Carmelo Anthony, rather than lose him to free agency. They have also jettisoned Chauncey Billups, Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith. In return for Anthony, they received a package of players including Gallinari, who is the cornerstone of a deep, young roster whose starting lineups average age is not yet 24 years old. Its a roster that Karl relishes coaching.
Hes older, been through a lot off the court, said Miller, the veteran guard who has played for Karl twice. I dont think he needs the stress of dealing with a superstar that has a certain type of ego and personality that you have to bend and adjust to. I think at this point in his career, hes more into developing young guys.
For parts of this series, there have been signs of promise. Gallinari, who had 20 points, was a matchup nightmare Sunday without the suspended Metta World Peace. Lawson, rookie forward Kenneth Faried and enigmatic center JaVale McGee have been energetic and Miller and Harrington, who played with a broken nose, played with a veterans wiliness. But ultimately, they have not clicked well enough to keep the Nuggets on the verge of extinction.
I like the team because its engaging, its new I think we all like new cars and new personalities and new things better than we like old things, Karl said earlier Sunday. Melo kind of showed us, are we going to be able to keep a superstar as a smaller market team? Did we keep him happy enough for him to win here? Its just a philosophical thing. That means nothing to me. Ive got a great challenge as a coach. Ive got a team thats pretty connected with each other. Were playing a team thats probably capable of winning a championship.
As he left the court, Karl removed his tie, folded it and placed it in the inside pocket of his suit jacket. Not long after, he did his best to neatly tuck away the disappointment of being on the brink of another early exit.
For me? Karl said. Having been blessed with great runs in the playoffs, I think I probably have one or two left in me in my lifetime.