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Nuggets pull together to beat Jazz, avoid elimination

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The Canadian Press
4/29/2010 2:07:24 AM
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DENVER - Carmelo Anthony got the help he was begging for, J.R. Smith found his long-range touch and the Denver Nuggets avoided elimination with a 116-102 victory over the Utah Jazz on Wednesday night.

The Nuggets, trying to become the first team in four years to overcome a 3-1 deficit in the playoffs, sent the series back to Salt Lake City for Game 6 on Friday night despite losing centre Nene to a sprained left knee in the first half.

"We know it's going to be a tough game up there, tough arena, Utah fans are pretty tough," Nuggets acting coach Adrian Dantley said. "But we're glad we did what we did tonight."

Anthony had 26 points and 11 rebounds, Chauncey Billups had 21 points, and Smith made four big three-pointers among his 17 points for Denver, which won a game in which it was facing elimination for the first time since the 1994 Western Conference semifinals against Utah.

The Nuggets had lost eight straight elimination games, six since Anthony joined the team in 2003.

"Now, we have a chance to really, I think, put the pressure back on them," Billups said. "We've just got to go in and play the same way, give it everything we got knowing that if we don't win the season's over."

After infighting and insults dominated their locker-room in the aftermath of their two losses at Salt Lake City, the Nuggets were a much more cohesive group even in the face of another outstanding performance by Utah's Deron Williams, who declared after shootaround that he was the best point guard in the NBA right now.

The Nuggets won't disagree.

After watching him average 27.6 points and 12.0 rebounds over the first four games of the series, the Nuggets put Billups on Williams from the start instead of Aaron Afflalo.

Williams said nothing would change no matter who was guarding him, and he was right, getting 34 points and 10 assists before fouling out in the final minute.

"We played good defence on him," Dantley insisted, "but he's just a great basketball player."

Carlos Boozer had 25 points and 16 boards for Utah. But backup big man Kyrylo Fesenko, who had played so well in the absence of Andrei Kirilenko (calf) and Mehmet Okur (Achilles' tendon) for the last three games, all Utah wins, didn't do so well Wednesday. He finished with three points and six rebounds in 20 minutes.

The Nuggets led 86-81 after three quarters before pouring it on like they did in Game 1, a 126-113 win.

The Nuggets have been helpless to curb Williams, who is the first player since Magic Johnson 20 years ago to register at least 20 points and 10 assists in each of the first four games of a playoff series.

So, the Nuggets turned to Billups, who has 138 games of playoff experience and was on one of the eight teams that overcame 3-1 playoff deficits (Detroit over Orlando in 2003), and also to rookie Ty Lawson, who brought superior speed to the Nuggets' lineup.

The Nuggets were finally able to capitalize once again on their athleticism and quickness, something that had been stifled since the series opener, in large part because of the many whistles that forced them to keep taking the ball out of bounds.

"They were a lot more alive, they went after the ball a little harder than we did," Utah coach Jerry Sloan said. "The players off the bench gave them a big lift. Their bench people killed us."

Williams backed up his proclamations about being the top point guard in the NBA in the closing minutes of the first half when the Nuggets looked like they were about to take control early.

His two three-pointers and two free throws highlighted a 12-4 run that sent the Jazz into the locker room with a 52-50 lead.

But he said the Jazz were outplayed and outhustled in the first few minutes of the second half and he put the blame on his shoulders for letting his team lose focus.

Nene sprained his left knee with five minutes left in the first half. He was working under the basket when Boozer's left leg slammed into his left knee. He stayed down for a few minutes, then limped to the locker-room, leaning on trainer Jim Gillen.

"I don't know how severe his injury is, but if he doesn't play we just have to play without him," Dantley said. "Utah, they went without two players. We just have to play without him."

Nene was having another quiet game, with two points and one rebound but four assists when he went out. The Nuggets said he would be re-evaluated Thursday.

With Nene out, Chris Andersen scored 10 points and grabbed seven boards and Johan Petro chipped in four points and six boards.

"It looks like when he went out they picked themselves up and it seems like they were a lot stronger," Sloan said. "That is what happens a lot of times when you have guys who have the chance to play and they try to make up the difference."

On Tuesday, Anthony cleared the air with his teammates, suggesting he didn't mean to point fingers when declaring after Game 4 that he needed some help in trying to beat Utah. Smith, who had tweeted about the team being selfish in Game 4, went back to benign bursts such as "cant stop thinking bout this game coming up!"

NOTES: Kirilenko shot at Utah's shootaround and said his strained left calf is feeling better. However, he wouldn't venture a guess as to when he could return to action, saying he has yet to run up and down the court 5-on-5 with his teammates. ... Andersen had scored 11 points all series before Wednesday.

Kenyon Martin (Photo: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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