The obituaries were written on the Denver Nuggets before their season even began, and it's easy to see why: Marcus Camby traded for nobody, just salary cap relief. Eduardo Najera leaving in free agency.
Then a blockbuster trade brought Chauncey Billups home to Denver a week into the season and rid the Nuggets of Allen Iverson's big contract. Nene and Kenyon Martin put together their healthiest seasons in years. Prodded by coach George Karl, superstar Carmelo Anthony instilled the defensive dogma in Denver that put a gold medal around his neck in Beijing, and Chris Andersen fell into their laps and hearts.
Hours before the calendar even turned to April, the Nuggets weren't just alive and kicking but playoff-bound, clinching a spot in the postseason party with a 111-104 win over the New York Knicks on Tuesday night.
"It means a lot," Billups said. "I never take that for granted. No matter how successful you've been in the playoffs or how much success you've had, you never take that for granted. Because I can still remember the days when I was just dreaming about being in the playoffs.
"But we've got bigger goals than just making the playoffs."
Just making the playoffs wasn't even something most observers predicted six months ago.
"I think it's pretty impressive," Karl said. "I think we're playing at an incredibly high level."
Fueling this win were Anthony's 29 points, Nene's 18 points and 12 boards, and Kenyon Martin's jumpers in crunch time, all of which helped Denver hold off the Knicks after blowing most of a 27-point second-quarter lead.
"Making the playoffs this early is a compliment to a lot of our veterans," Karl said. "Not a lot of people were believing in us coming into the season, and I think we rallied together and (are) on the verge of a special regular season and then hopefully get over the hump on the playoffs."
The Nuggets' win, coupled with San Antonio's 96-95 loss to Oklahoma City, moved Denver into the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference heading into the final two weeks of the season.
"As you can see, there's really no easy games right now," Billups said. "You look at the San Antonio game, you look at this game. We're up 27 and end up having to really play to win the game. Those are the most dangerous games out there. You can't let your guard down against really good teams, but when you play teams that aren't really playing for anything, those are tough, tough games."
Denver's 49-26 record is its best 73-game mark since joining the NBA in 1976. The Nuggets clinched a playoff spot for the sixth straight season. Only Dallas, Detroit and San Antonio have also made the playoffs every year since 2003-04.
Still, the Nuggets aren't celebrating just yet.
"We're excited about clinching," Anthony said. "At least we know we are in the playoffs, that's a good sign. We still have games to go and win. Two losses back-to-back will put you in the eighth spot. That's tough, that's tough right now. I'm happy with the way we're playing, I'm happy we clinched, I'm happy we're in the playoffs. But we still want that home court."
In each of his first five seasons, the Nuggets went on the road to start the playoffs and were first-round fodder every time.
Denver has won nine of 10 and New York has lost nine of 10, so a mismatch was expected, and the Nuggets obliged by racing out to a 62-35 led with five minutes left in the first half.
That's when they got lackadaisical, and the Knicks, who were led by Nate Robinson's 30 points, got hot.
The Knicks used a 26-3 spurt spanning halftime to pull to 65-61 and make a game of it.
Billups said his teammates gathered around, look each other in the eyes and said, "All right, it's time to buckle down. That's enough."
"Chauncey is a great leader on that team, and he's taking them to higher limits," Robinson said. "It's shown. Ever since he got traded, they've been playing great basketball. They're a team to be reckoned with in the West."
The feisty, short-handed Knicks pulled to 80-77 on Wilson Chandler's jumper with 1:19 left in the third quarter, but that was as close as the Knicks could get as the Nuggets scored the next 14 points.
The Knicks played without guard Larry Hughes (ankle), swingman Quentin Richardson (ankle) and center Eddy Curry (knee), and the Nuggets led 65-52 at halftime.
"We dug ourselves a way big hole," Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni said. "The good thing, they fought back. We only had seven guys available. We played hard. We didn't make the biggest plays on that court, they did."
Notes: The Nuggets' best mark since joining the NBA is 54 wins in 1987-88. ... Nene sustained a mild sprain of his right ankle and is probable for Denver's showdown against Utah on Thursday night.
(Copyright Associated Press, All Rights Reserved)
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