George Karl’s periodic absence to undergo cancer treatments has only seemed to inspire the Denver Nuggets. Playing for a stretch without a few regulars seems to be having a similar effect.
Winners of seven of their last eight, the Nuggets can claim sole possession of second place in the Western Conference on Thursday at the Pepsi Center if they defeat the New Orleans Hornets for the second time in less than a week.
Karl is undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments during a six-week period as he battles neck and throat cancer. He missed each game of the Nuggets’ recent four-game road trip, during which Denver (46-22) went 3-1.
Karl was happy to be back on the sidelines at home Tuesday against Washington. He was even more pleased after J.R. Smith(notes) scored 13 points in the fourth quarter to help the Nuggets bounce back from a sluggish first half and win 97-87 - their seventh victory in eight games overall.
“Seeing him coming back in a happy manner, despite all the things he’s going through, and to see him not down, we know deep down inside, it’s a tough task for him,” Carmelo Anthony(notes), who had a game-high 29 points, said of Karl. “For him to come in and see us, and we can uplift his spirits, makes us feel good.”
The Nuggets - currently tied in the West standings with Southwest Division-leading Dallas - are surging despite playing without Ty Lawson(notes) (bruised left shoulder) all month and Kenyon Martin(notes) (left knee injury) since March 5. They beat the Wizards without the energy of reserve Chris Andersen(notes), who sprained his ankle the previous night in a loss at Houston.
It’s unclear whether the former Hornet, who has averaged 10.0 rebounds as Denver has won the last two meetings with New Orleans, will return Thursday.
The Hornets (33-36) won the first matchup in the season series, 98-92 at home on Dec. 18, when Denver’s Chauncey Billups(notes) sat out with a groin injury. Billups has averaged 20.5 points in the Nuggets’ two wins over New Orleans since.
It was Anthony, however, who made the difference last Friday. With Adrian Dantley coaching in Karl’s absence, Anthony poured in 12 of his 32 points in the fourth quarter to rally Denver from a two-point deficit to a 102-95 win.
“We fought, but they just made the plays down the stretch in terms of having those elite guys who have been in situations like that,” said Hornets forward David West(notes), who scored 30 points in the loss. “They just know how to close the show.”
West is averaging 29.2 points in his last six games, including 36 on Wednesday at Golden State. The Hornets, though, allowed 75 second-half points and blew a 13-point halftime lead en route to a 131-121 loss, their eighth in 10 games.
“It was rather difficult for us to handle when they got on a roll,” coach Jeff Bower said. “They got on the move and stopped us from doing many of the things that got us out to the big lead.”
The Hornets haven’t been at full strength for their last two meetings with Denver, as West missed a 116-110 overtime loss at the Pepsi Center on Jan. 23 with a sprained ankle. Paul was out for last week’s game, and Peja Stojakovic(notes) - who’s averaged 22.0 points in his last three games against the Nuggets - won’t play Thursday because of a groin injury.