Nuggs clinch division crown, home-court edge
DENVER ” J.R. Smith’s career-high 45 points and franchise-best 11 3-pointers helped the Denver Nuggets clinch the Northwest Division title and home-court edge in a playoff series for the first time in 21 years with a 118-98 win over the Sacramento Kings on Monday night.
With chants of “J.R.” cascading from the rafters, Smith sank half of his 3s in the fourth quarter, when he scored 23 points.
The Nuggets (54-27) tied their franchise record for most wins since joining the NBA in 1976. They can break that mark with a victory in their regular-season finale Wednesday night at Portland.
Denver clinched at least the third seed in the Western Conference. The Nuggets would secure the No. 2 seed with a win at Portland or if Houston loses at Dallas on Wednesday night.
Either way, star Carmelo Anthony finally has the home-court advantage on his side as he tries to end five straight seasons of first-round exits by the Nuggets.
Anthony had 21 points, nine assists and nine rebounds in 32 minutes against Sacramento, which was led by Ike Diogu’s career-best 32 points.
Anthony spent the fourth quarter cheering on Smith, who twice sank all three foul shots when he was hammered going for yet another 3-pointer.
Smith’s 11 3-pointers ” on 18 attempts ” bested the franchise mark of nine set by Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in 1995 and tied by Michael Adams in 1991. Smith’s previous career high was eight, which he accomplished three times, including earlier this month against Utah.
Smith’s previous career high for points was 43 at Chicago 14 months ago. His 45 points came despite playing just 29 1/2 minutes.
Denver wasn’t expected to even make the playoffs this year after defensive stalwarts Marcus Camby and Eduardo Najera weren’t brought back. But a week into the new season, Nuggets executive Mark Warkentien pulled off the biggest trade in the NBA, acquiring Chauncey Billups from Detroit for Allen Iverson.
Iverson had a hard time adjusting to his new team and missed a lot of games. He’ll miss the Pistons’ playoff run and he’s complained about his role as a reserve, saying he’d rather retire than come off the bench next season.
Billups molded the Nuggets’ individual talents into a cohesive unit and Denver found itself with a team that not only made the playoffs, but has visions of finally making some noise in the postseason.
But the Nuggets had a harder time with the Kings than they or their fans might have imagined ” and Sacramento was missing three starters.
Center Spencer Hawes injured his left knee on a flagrant foul by Kenyon Martin in the first quarter and did not return. He was fouled on a drive to the basket and landed awkwardly. After a timeout, he returned to sink both free throws before heading to the locker room.
The Kings already were without two other starters, guards Beno Udrih and Kevin Martin, both of whom have sore left ankles.
But they trailed just 62-58 at the break after leading by as many as 11.
The Kings pulled to 80-79, but trailed 86-79 after three quarters, and Smith took over in the fourth period.
Notes: In his first game since April 2, Kenyon Martin scored 13 points. He had been out with bruised ribs. … Nuggets G Dahntay Jones bruised his right shoulder in the third quarter and didn’t return, and center Nene chipped a tooth in the third quarter. … Denver went 3-1 against Sacramento for the first time since 1992-93. … Diogu’s previous career high was 27 points on Dec. 23, 2005, at Detroit when he was with Golden State.
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