NEW ORLEANS - The Denver Nuggets hadn't lost in more than a month, compiling a 15-game winning streak that had tied a franchise record but had been relegated to an NBA footnote by an even more impressive streak produced on the other side of the country by the Miami Heat.
But Nuggets coach George Karl, a big believer in reading the tea leaves, felt suspiciously nervous before Monday night's game against the pesky New Orleans Hornets, a young team buried near the bottom of the Western Conference standings.
Karl was prophetic. Playing without starting guards Greivis Vasquez and Eric Gordon, New Orleans got 23 points from Ryan Anderson and 13 points and 18 assists from rookie guard Brian Roberts, making his second NBA start, to rout Denver 110-86 at the New Orleans Arena.
"I think a lot of the last three games that we played are (an example of) human nature," Karl said, referring to the Nuggets' close victories over Philadelphia and Sacramento in their previous two games. "We win some games and we think we're probably a little better than we are, and we're human beings. We're happy and feeling good, and this league has a way of humbling anybody that doesn't have the right karma or the right attitude or approach to basketball."
"I'm not saying we're in a bad place or anything like that," Karl added. "I just think the last three games, we haven't been as committed to it as we need to be."
In winning their third consecutive game against a top playoff contender, the Hornets (25-46) moved the ball crisply, creating 30 assists on 41 made field goals. New Orleans poured in 14 of 25 attempts from 3-point range -- Anderson had five and guards Darius Miller and Roger Mason had four each -- to foil Denver's attempt at breaking its franchise record for consecutive wins.
"We need to move on to the next game," said Nuggets guard Andre Miller. "We played a bad game, and they played a great game. Our game plan was to trap the ball. They did a good job of staying patient and hitting the open player."
The Hornets led by as many as 23 points early in the second half. The Nuggets (49-23) pulled to within 96-84 with 6:07 left but could get no closer. Denver last lost on Feb. 22, falling 119-113 on the road to the Washington Wizards.
Roberts started at point guard for Vasquez, who tweaked an ankle injury in practice on Sunday and could not play. The rookie had only three turnovers in 41 minutes. Roberts has shown flashes of being an offensive threat this season, with nice range on his jumper and a quick first step into the lane.
But not many were prepared for his ability to share the ball as well as did against Denver.
"He can play, obviously," said New Orleans coach Monty Williams. "The threat of shooting the ball is something you don't see out of point guards, but we tell him to be aggressive. He was really aware of the guys being open tonight. He had 18 assists. That doesn't happen if he doesn't work hard, and he works his tail off."
Roberts was especially effective in the first half, dishing out 11 assists as the Hornets raced to s 59-38 lead. The Nuggets tried to trap him at every opportunity, using Miller to muscle up against him near halfcourt.
"Their size was their advantage against me, so I felt my quickness was my advantage against them," Roberts said. "I just tried to stay in attack mode for the time I was out there. I didn't know how many assists I had. Somebody told me, and I couldn't believe it, really. I knew it was kind of racking up throughout the game, but that's just a testament to the guys on the team. I was finding guys and they were knocking down shots."
New Orleans also outrebounded the normally stout Denver front line 45-32. Denver entered the game third in the NBA in rebounding margin.
The Nuggets also committed 10 first-half turnovers.
"An obnoxious number," Karl said.
The Hornets placed seven players in double figures. Besides Anderson and Roberts, Miller had 16, Mason and Anthony Davis had 14, Al-Farouq Aminu had 13 and Robin Lopez had 11.
Denver was paced by Danilo Gallinari with 24.
NOTES: Denver point guard Ty Lawson missed his third consecutive game with a right heel strain, but forward Wilson Chandler returned from a separated left shoulder... The Nuggets made 31 of 39 free throws. They are now 17-3 in games in which they have attempted 30 or more foul shots... The Hornets held the Nuggets to 37.9 percent shooting... After losing an NCAA Tournament bet to assistant coach Chad Iske, a Kansas alum, Karl, a North Carolina grad, donned a Kansas warm-up jacket before the game. ... The Hornets played without their starting backcourt. Vasquez missed his first game as a Hornet after tweaking an ankle in practice on Sunday and Gordon was held out with an ankle injury. Williams said Vasquez tried to plead his case, but to no avail. "I just squashed it right away," Williams said. "Greivis is a warrior. If he says he's hurting, I know he's hurting badly. I have to be the brains for guys at times."... Williams said the Nuggets remind him of the Seattle teams that Karl once coached. "I just think of transition," he said. "They can shoot the ball. They can attack the basket in the half-court. They have two starting point guards. They have a number of slashers who can also shoot the ball. Their bench is solid. They defend." ... Karl said the Nuggets' impressive winning streak, which ended Monday night, proved his team was mentally tough. "Being on a streak is not as easy as you think," Karl said. "There's a little more stress, a little more worrying and nervousness. But the confidence that comes with it, the young guys growing up, the cohesiveness and the defensive mentality (are good). ... I think it's a trait of a good team when you don't play well and you win."