Nuggets suddenly find themselves in tight race |

Nuggets suddenly find themselves in tight race

DENVER (AP) ” The Denver Nuggets have hit a pothole on the road to their best season ever.

Sailing along just one week ago, when they had gone 5-1 on their three-week trip, the Nuggets have dropped three straight, allowing Portland and Utah to close fast on the injury-riddled Northwest Division leaders.

“No team is immune to this,” floor leader Chauncey Billups insisted. “You’re going to go through these kinds of patches. You can’t overreact to it ” but you can’t under-react. If the screws need to be tightened up, do that and go.”

They don’t have much time with the resurgent Atlanta Hawks (32-24) and the Western Conference front-running Los Angeles Lakers (46-10) both visiting Denver (37-20) this week.

Brazilian big man Nene will likely be in street clothes again for both of those games. He bruised his right knee in the final minute of the Nuggets’ longest road trip in history, banging it into Milwaukee’s Richard Jefferson on Sunday night, when the Nuggets lost to a sub.-500 team for the second time in 48 hours.

They hit rock bottom upon their return to the Pepsi Center Monday night. In their first home game since Feb. 3, the Nuggets were walloped by the Boston Celtics 114-76, their worst loss in Denver in more than a decade.

Johan Petro replaced Nene and made his first start for Denver and scored nine points to go with 10 rebounds, but he was the team’s lone bright spot.

Billups had a season-low three points in 34 minutes as the Celtics frontcourt of Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo outscored Denver’s frontcourt of Billups and Dahntay Jones 40-6.

The nose-diving Nuggets also were outscored from three-point range 42-9, out-rebounded, out-hustled and out-muscled in matching their longest losing streak of the season.

Despite all that, they’re still talking about finishing with the best record since joining the NBA in 1976, a 54-win season in 1987-88.

“You always go through stretches like this,” said Billups, whose arrival from Detroit in the Allen Iverson trade was the impetus for the team’s turnaround this season. “That team (Boston) has the best record in the league. They lost seven out of nine at one point this year, so that’s just how it is.

“And you’ve just got to keep playing, stay focused and you’ll kick your way out of it.”

The loss to the Celtics could be explained away by any number of factors, including physical and mental fatigue, Nene’s absence, facing a team fired up to avenge a loss to Denver at home earlier in the season, and injuries.

But that doesn’t explain their losses to the Bucks and Bulls before that.

“There’s always a crisis or two or three in a good year,” coach George Karl said. “In a bad year, there’s six or seven or eight. We’ve done a great job in every category except the last week we haven’t had a focus to respond to the challenges.”

The Nuggets are hoping to respond to their latest debacle the way they did their first.

They were walloped by 44 points at New Jersey on Feb. 7 and rebounded with wins at Miami, Orlando and Philadelphia before their current skid.

“Any time you get beat like this, it gets your attention,” Billups said.

Carmelo Anthony, who’s playing with a balky knee himself, shrugged off the team’s latest hiccup.

“I’m not worried about that. Our confidence is still high,” he said. “Heads are up right now. We know what we’ve got to do.”

The coaching staff is taking the same approach.

“I don’t think there’s a panic,” Karl said. “It’s wake up, re-energize and regroup. And (we’ve) always got to recommit to some fundamentals. Our schedule’s not easy. We’ve got to find some confidence hopefully on Wednesday and start building on some of the good stuff we’ve done all year long.”

Billups said he pays no mind to the tightening Northwest Division race.

“My thing is all of us need to be more focused and pay more attention to playing good basketball,” he said. “Because when we’re playing good basketball, we’re among the best in the West.”

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