DENVER (AP)—This was one of those games the Denver Nuggets were “supposed” to win. They had to bumble their way through two terrible quarters before they started playing like it.
“Sometimes our starts lack urgency,” coach George Karl said about a first half in which the Nuggets committed 16 turnovers to find themselves trailing 34-33 to the NBA’s worst team.
Andre Miller had 14 points and 10 assists and Marcus Camby had 11 points and 13 rebounds to help the Nuggets match their longest winning streak of the season. They pulled within a game of the Los Angeles Lakers, who would get the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference if the season ended today.
“I scoreboard watch every night, but it’s really too early,” Karl said.
For the first half, the Nuggets hardly looked like a team that should be thinking playoffs.
In fact, not much of what transpired in front of the half-packed Pepsi Center resembled the NBA. The Nuggets and Hawks combined for 31 turnovers and 44 missed shots, and besides Kenyon Martin’s brutal—and legal—leveling of Royal Ivey while setting a pick, there was nothing much for the crowd to get excited about.
While the Nuggets got better, the Hawks never did. On the day Atlanta waived Gary Payton after he refused to report to the team following a trade that sent Antoine Walker back to the Celtics, Atlanta lost its ninth in a row, its 20th straight on the road and its 46th game overall.
“It’s frustrating,” Al Harrington said. “We can’t get over the hump.”
A microcosm of Atlanta’s season came with 5 1/2 minutes left, when Tyronn Lue got tossed for punching Denver’s Eduardo Najera after Najera stole the ball from Lue. Lue took two roundhouse shots at Najera—enough to get him ejected, but not even close to enough to get a rise out of Najera.
“Why would I want to pick a fight with a little guy,” Najera said. “It’s not fair.”
Lue declined comment, but Harrington defended him.
“We drive, we get pushed, there’s no call on the other end, and they get those calls and there’s always an explanation for it,” he said. “I’m done with these refs. So, I understand him being frustrated because he got fouled.”
Harrington led Atlanta with 18 points. Josh Smith, who won the slam-dunk contest here during All-Star weekend 10 days ago, finished with nine points and spent part of the night jawing with coach Mike Woodson, who wasn’t happy with the rookie’s attitude.
Stacking this win on top of Sunday’s one-point victory over New Orleans, Denver improved to just 6-5 against the NBA’s five worst teams—Atlanta, New Orleans, Golden State, Charlotte and Utah.
“The personality of NBA basketball is that a lot of times, you play down to the level as much as you play up to the level” of competition, Karl said. “It seems like we always play down to them.”
Early in the third quarter, Anthony made an 18-foot jump shot, converted a three-point play and had an easy dunk during a 10-0 run that gave Denver a 52-42 lead. His best play, though, came midway through the fourth, when he thundered home a dunk off an alley-oop pass from Miller.
It was Anthony’s second strong game after he was pulled for the last 3 minutes of regulation and all of overtime in a 97-94 win over Memphis last Friday.
“Carmelo is a tremendously talented basketball player,” Karl said. “My desire is to get him focused and passionate about every possession. If he does that, he’ll be a great player.”
Earlier in the day, Karl was named Western Conference Coach of the Month; he went 10-4 in February and is 11-4 overall, and has helped the Nuggets get back into the playoff hunt after their 17-25 start.
Tom Gugliotta has played in the last two games against the Nuggets at the Pepsi Center. Last Wednesday, he was with the Celtics. On Tuesday, he was with the Hawks, part of their trade with Boston that also landed a first-round draft pick. … Denver won its second straight against Atlanta after seven straight losses. … The Nuggets matched their season high with 22 turnovers, 16 of which came in the first half.