With a little help from the hometown kid, Carmelo Anthony is finally moving on.
Behind Anthony’s 34 points and the floor leadership of Chauncey Billups, the Denver native who came home this season and galvanized a city and a team, the Nuggets advanced to the second round of the NBA playoffs, 107-86 over the New Orleans Hornets on Wednesday night.
After five straight first-round flameouts, ‘Melo led the Nuggets to their first playoff series win since 1994. They’ll face the Dallas Mavericks in the second round.
“That monkey is awful heavy sometimes,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. “I’m just really happy for ‘Melo.”
“It took me five years to get that gorilla off my back,” said Anthony, drafted third overall by the Nuggets in 2003 after leading Syracuse to the national title in his only college season. “And it’s a great feeling. I’m just going to soak this time up, this moment.”
Dallas advanced to the Western Conference semifinals by defeating San Antonio in five games. Denver swept the season series with the Mavericks 4-0.
“I think they’re as good as any team in the West,” Hornets coach Byron Scott said of the Nuggets. “I think the Lakers are probably the best team in the Western Conference. That would be a great matchup.”
Anthony’s 34 points were a career playoff best. Billups had 13 points and 11 assists, and J.R. Smith scored 15 of his 20 points in the second half to fuel Denver, which needed just five games to go from traditional first-round fodder to a playoff success story.
“I thought we could be a good team,” Karl said. “But I never thought we could be this good.”
Billups, who led the Pistons to six straight Eastern Conference finals before joining the Nuggets in the Allen Iverson trade in November, flashed his famous smile after the buzzer.
“It feels good. It feels great actually, especially me being a hometown kid and kind of from afar following the struggles that they’ve had the last five years in the first round,” Billups said. “It’s crazy, that monkey is big on everybody’s shoulders around here. It’s good to get that off, even though I haven’t lost in the first round in a long time.
“Being around here all year, man, it’s like everybody’s putting all the emphasis on the first round. I shoot higher than that.”
Despite the final score, the capper wasn’t nearly as easy as Denver’s three other wins, including the 58-point blowout in Game 4 that matched the NBA record.
Playing without Tyson Chandler but with a pride and passion unapparent through most of the series, the Hornets made the Nuggets sweat. It was tied at 62 midway through the third period before Denver went on a 24-4 run to ice it.
David West led the Hornets with 24 points and Chris Paul toughed out a bum knee to get 12 points and 10 assists.
“The biggest thing is just wishing that we were all healthy, because I know we’re a much better basketball team that we showed in this series,” Scott said. “But I don’t take anything away from Denver.
“And Chauncey, when he got over here, I knew that would be a difference for them. He has that championship pedigree.”
The Nuggets, coming off the most lopsided road win in NBA playoff history, a 121-63 shellacking in New Orleans on Monday night, finally started to create some separation late in the third quarter when consecutive 3s by Billups and Smith (twice) gave Denver its biggest lead yet, 73-62.
The spurt began with Anthony’s deflection that led to a sweet fastbreak lay-up by Dahntay Jones.
When the 14-0 run was finished, the Hornets were history.
Including the playoffs, the Hornets were 13-6 following a loss of 10 or more points, and they looked for much of this night like they were going to win. They built a nine-point first-quarter lead before settling for a 49-49 tie at halftime.
The Hornets, with Hilton Armstrong starting at center for Chandler (ankle), went toe-to-toe with the Nuggets until Denver’s third-quarter run started the celebration.
It was especially sweet for Billups, who was born and raised in Denver and has turned his beloved Nuggets from an afterthought to a contender.
“Chauncey is the best thing that happened to Denver,” Paul said. “The mind-set that he’s given this team right now is something that will fuel them in the next round.”
Karl, who famously benched Anthony for a game earlier this season for ignoring his orders to take a breather, kept asking his superstar if he wanted to take a seat in the closing minutes.
“I said, ‘George, I’m good. I’m going to go get this one,”’ Anthony recounted.
After his last bucket, a 3-pointer that made it 104-81, Anthony spun around and yelled, “This is my house!”
“What else do you want me to say about that?” Anthony said. “Chauncey moved in with me.”
The average margin of victory in Denver’s four wins was 37.5 points. … Anthony’s previous career playoff high was 30 points (twice).