Anthony leads Nuggets into conference finals

Arnie Stapleton
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
Denver Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony, right, falls back to make a shot over Dallas Mavericks center Erick Dampier, front left, and guard Josh Howard in the third quarter of the Nuggets' 124-110 victory in Game 5 of an NBA Western Conference semifinal in Denver on Wednesday, May 13, 2009. The Nuggets advance to the Western Conference finals for the first time since 1985. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
AP | FR42408 AP

DENVER ” Chauncey Billups is taking his hometown team to new heights with a big assist from Carmelo Anthony.

Behind 30 points from Anthony and 28 from Billups, the Denver Nuggets beat the Dallas Mavericks 124-110 on Wednesday night to wrap up their semifinal series in five feisty games.

So, the Nuggets are leaving all the animosity with the Mavericks’ players, fans and owner behind and heading to their first Western Conference finals since 1985.

The Nuggets, who are 8-2 in the playoffs after tying their franchise record with a 54-win regular season, will face either Los Angeles or Houston for the conference championship.

“It’s special. We worked hard in the offseason and training camp and throughout,” Anthony said. “We stuck to everything, we overcame adversity, we stayed humble and our hard work paid off.”

Winners of 16 straight games at the Pepsi Center, where no opponent has won since March 9, the Nuggets would start their next series on the road if the Lakers win, and at home if Houston does. The Lakers lead the series 3-2 with Game 6 Thursday night in Houston.

Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said the combination of Billups, a proven winner, and Anthony, “who’s just taking quantum leaps as a great player and leader,” makes the Nuggets a true title contender.

“These guys are legitimate, a legitimate championship-caliber team,” Carlisle said. “They’ve got a great shot. They’ve got a real opportunity.”

The Nuggets didn’t dare dream of this type of success when the season began following the departures of defensive stalwarts Marcus Camby and Eduardo Najera.

“Sometimes when you’re forced to come together and fight together and persevere, your best qualities come forward,” Denver coach George Karl said.

The impetus for the transformation came when the team made its biggest trade ever, Allen Iverson to Detroit for Billups, who turned his hometown team from an afterthought into a championship contender after leading the Pistons to six straight Eastern Conference finals and the NBA championship in 2004.

“We love Allen, Allen’s family,” Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke said. “But as Allen has said many times it’s still a business. Chauncey was right for us, with the different personalities we have on the club Chauncey was a really important part.”

“He’s a leader,” Anthony said of Billups. “He came on this team and he brought a businesslike attitude to our team. He brought a defensive mindset we were looking for.”

Fired up from the ugliness on and off the court in Dallas in Games 3 and 4, the Nuggets came out in front of their home crowd with a passion and shot 64 percent in the first half while building a 69-55 lead.

The Mavericks wouldn’t go down easily, though, making five straight 3-pointers, three by Jason Kidd, to pull within 79-72.

The Mavericks were within 103-97 with 7 minutes left but Anthony took the inbounds pass and with 2 seconds on the shot clock, hit a turnaround 25-foot jumper at the buzzer. Antoine Wright was assessed a technical and Billups’ free throw made it a 10-point game with 6:35 left.

“That ‘Melo 3 was a killer,” Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki said. “We get the technical on top. Back to 10 points.”

“I don’t know how he hit that shot,” Billups said.

Anthony said it was pure luck.

“Yeah, that was a spark,” Anthony said. “If I told you I knew it was going in, I’d be lying to you. That was a lucky shot. It went in. I think that shot right there sparked the momentum for us.”

Carlisle called ‘Melo’s shot a microcosm of the series, where Denver had an answer to almost everything the Mavericks threw out.

“In the final analysis, Denver’s a better team,” Carlisle said. “And they showed it throughout the series.”

Nowitzki had his usual monster game, scoring 32 points ” he averaged 34.4 in the series ” and Kidd added 19.

J.R. Smith scored 18 points for Denver, which is starting to get recognized as this year’s feel-good story.

“It’s not over, we’re still on the road man,” Billups said. “We are moving on to bigger and better things and hopefully we can remain successful.”

Karl said it’s not too early for the Nuggets to believe they can be champions.

“I think our team is a good basketball team, a very good basketball team. And I have a feeling that we’re not going to be messed up by the next round. We’re going to make a team beat us,” Karl said. “We can live with that. But we’re not going to give it to anybody. We’re going to go after it.”

Karl said that for all Anthony’s accolades, including an NCAA championship at Syracuse as a freshman in 2003 and a gold medal at the Beijing Games last summer, Wednesday was a red-letter day in Anthony’s career because he was named to the All-NBA team and won another playoff series.

“These two awards tonight solidify how good he is,” Karl said.

“You can start to put ‘Melo in that group of winners and not just great players,” Billups suggested.

Before the game, the NBA said it wouldn’t punish anybody over the ugly incidents that occurred on and off the court in the games in Dallas, which included Mavs owner Mark Cuban throwing a fit after a non-call helped Denver win Game 3, when he also yelled at Kenyon Martin’s mother.

Cuban, who skipped Game 5 to attend an awards ceremony in Las Vegas, had written in his blog this week that the Nuggets’ families and friends could sit in his private suite “when the series returns to Dallas.”

The Nuggets won’t be going back to Texas. They have bigger plans, thanks to Anthony and Billups.