Jones relishes role with Nuggets
Dahntay Jones is making a name as a rugged defender -- some would say dirty
Jones has been Denver's primary defender against Kobe Bryant in the West finals
Jones' physical play has left him in danger of a league-mandated suspension
Jones joins the fraternity with great references. There is Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who on Monday described the Nuggets guard's trip of Kobe Bryant in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals as "unacceptable" and "unsportsmanlike basketball." Jackson's criticisms were similar to last month's comments from Hornets coach Byron Scott, who accused Jones of "being dirty" in the first-round series between New Orleans and Denver.
Reference No. 3 is Bryant, who took the high road after Denver's series-tying victory in Game 4 -- "Good defense," he said with a smirk when asked about Jones' tactics -- but whose scowl every time Jones shoves an elbow into his back betrays his true feelings. You know the look. It's the same one he gave Bell after the then-Suns guard dropped him with a WWE-style clothesline during a 2006 playoff game.
Like Bell, Jones bounced around before establishing a role on a championship contender. Jones, the 20th pick in the 2003 draft, spent his first four seasons in Memphis, where he never averaged more than 7.5 points a game or started more than 25 games in a season. The Grizzlies cut ties with Jones after the 2006-07 season. After failing to make the Celtics as a training-camp invitee, Jones had a two-month stint with the Kings that ended in February 2008 when Sacramento had to clear room for the players acquired in the Mike Bibby trade. Jones finished the season with the D-League's Fort Wayne Mad Ants and needed a stellar summer league with the Nuggets to earn a minimum contract for this season.
"There have been a lot of trials in my life," Jones said.
The big reward came three games into this season when Jones suddenly found himself in the starting lineup after the Nuggets traded shooting guard Allen Iverson. Jones kept the starting job all season by focusing on the defensive end -- which is nothing new for him.
In Jones' two seasons at Duke, coach Mike Krzyzewski routinely dispatched him to antagonize top ACC scorers Josh Howard and Rashad McCants. In limited NBA minutes early in his career, Jones was always inserted into games for his ability to get stops. And this postseason, Jones has gone body-to-body with New Orleans' Chris Paul and Dallas' Howard and Jason Terry before setting his sights on Bryant, who shot only 10-of-26 from the field in Game 4 after three efficient performances to open the series.
"I've always played defense," Jones said. "I've always guarded the leading scorer on the offensive team. Coach K told me that my ability to play defense was going to keep me on the floor. He told me to take advantage of that opportunity."
Jones has filled a need for Denver. After looking up and down a roster full of electrifying scorers and subpar defenders, Nuggets vice president of player personnel Rex Chapman took Jones aside before the season and talked to him about David Wingate, who carved out a 15-year NBA career through tough, physical defense.
"[Chapman] wanted me to focus on what our team needed, which was someone to guard people," Jones said. "From Day One, I wanted to go out and take care of that."
Said Chapman: "He really has blossomed into an unbelievable defender. He's tough, physical and, besides Dwight Howard, pound-for-pound he's probably the strongest guy in the league."
None of this surprises Krzyzewski, who counts Jones as one of his favorite players. During a break before a recent television interview, Krzyzewski paused to watch highlights of Jones' defense against Paul earlier in the playoffs. He smiled as the TV showed several replays of his former player making life difficult for a member of the NBA elite.
"Dahntay Jones," Krzyzewski said, "was made for that role."
That role also requires thick skin, and Jones seems to have it. The more successful great defenders are, the more ire they draw from the opposition. But Jones said he isn't bothered by the criticism, so long as it doesn't come from his locker room.
It doesn't. When informed of Jackson's comments after Game 4, Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin -- who himself has been called a dirty player -- shouted at Jones from across the room.
"Hey, 'Tay," Martin said. "You made it, dog. You're a dirty player."
Said Jones: "My teammates don't think I'm dirty. My teammates think I play extremely hard. If I were affected by what people said about me, I would worry every day of my life. I've been tripped. I've been knocked down. I've been thrown down. I see nobody coming to my defense and asking me about plays that happened to me. So when it happens to somebody who is in the limelight, it's a big thing."
It's big enough that the league office is taking notice. On Tuesday, the NBA upgraded Jones' trip of Bryant in Game 4 to a flagrant foul 1, giving Jones three flagrant-foul points in the playoffs. Four points means an automatic one-game suspension.
"I'm glad it just was a flagrant and no suspension," Nuggets coach George Karl said. "I don't think this series is anything but a pretty even NBA playoff series. They're not liking us, we're not liking them and it's not getting any kinder. It's going to be harder, tougher and meaner.''
That's Jones' type of series.
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