Barely a week into the 2008-09 season, the Denver Nuggets pulled off a blockbuster trade for Chauncey Billups. It not only made them one of the league’s biggest first-half surprises but also a potential title contender.
Billups looks to help the Northwest Division-leading Nuggets carry their first-half momentum into the stretch run when they play their first game since the All-Star break Wednesday night against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wachovia Center.
Denver (36-17) opened the season with three losses in its first four games, but is 35-14 since trading Allen Iverson to Detroit for Billups.
Billups has made an immediate impact with the Nuggets, averaging 18.0 points and 6.2 assists. The veteran point guard also directs the league’s sixth-highest scoring offense (103.5) and is efficiently distributing the ball to Carmelo Anthony, who is averaging a team-high 21.8 points.
The Nuggets, who have a 3 1/2-game division lead over second-place Portland, have been eliminated in the first round of the last five postseasons. They appear primed for a different result in 2008-09.
“We have a veteran crew. Guys know what it takes to win now,” power forward Kenyon Martin said after last Wednesday’s 82-73 win at Orlando. “We are winning close games on the road. Our guys are hungrier than we have been in the past.”
Denver won nine of its final 11 games before the break, culminating in the victory over the Southeast-leading Magic.
“It was a big win for us momentum wise and confidence wise as we go to the break,” said Anthony, who scored 29 against Orlando.
Billups, the Nuggets’ only All-Star, had five points, three assists and two rebounds for the Western Conference in its 146-119 win Sunday. The four-time All-Star had 26 points and 10 assists in the Nuggets’ 105-101 home victory over Philadelphia (27-25) on Dec. 26.
Denver made a season-high 15 3-pointers on 31 attempts from beyond the arc against the Sixers in December, and is now looking to sweep its first season series from them since 2003-04. The Nuggets have won three of their last five visits to Philadelphia.
Anthony missed the December matchup with a sore right elbow but is averaging 30.8 points on 55.1 percent shooting in five games against the Sixers since 2005-06. Anthony, who also missed 10 games in January with a fractured right hand, should come back from the break well-rested after he was left off the West All-Star roster.
Philadelphia entered the break riding a four-game winning streak but lost 100-91 at Indiana on Tuesday, falling behind 17-4 early in the first quarter.
“I didn’t think we came out with the defensive energy we needed,” Sixers coach Tony DiLeo said.
Iguodala, who is averaging 17.8 points, scored 24 against the Nuggets earlier this season.
Philadelphia returns to the Wachovia Center, where it’s won four straight and 10 of 13, before beginning a four-game road trip Saturday in Miami.