Reserve J.R. Smith scored a season-high 41 points, hitting 10 3-pointers, and the Nuggets beat the Atlanta Hawks 124-104 Wednesday night.
It was the first time in six games this season that the Nuggets came out on top while one of their starters was sidelined. Chauncey Billups missed his third consecutive game because of a groin strain and Kenyon Martin missed three games earlier this season with a dislocated finger and a bone bruise in his left leg.
"We needed to end that streak because not everybody is going to be 100 percent every game and not everybody is going to be able to play every game and we've got to know that," said Martin, who added 14 points to reach 8,000 for his career. "It was just huge for us to come out with that kind of energy and aggression."
Carmelo Anthony added 24 points and rookie Ty Lawson, making only his second career start in place of Billups, had 16, boosting Denver to its sixth win in a row at home, where it is a league-best 13-1 this season.
Of course, having Smith get hot helped. He was 15 of 25 from the floor, including 10 of 17 from 3-point range, though he went only 1 for 6 from the free-throw line.
Smith said his teammates began feeding him the ball when they recognized he would be open because Atlanta was opting to double-team Anthony. And it didn't take Smith long to find his shooting touch.
"They started looking for me real early," Smith said. "They started doubling off of me and going on 'Melo. I really started getting in that rhythm in the first quarter. Everything else was like throwing darts."
"It's great to have a player that can take over and end a game like J.R. has done," Denver coach George Karl said. "There's no question he was in a zone, but we need J.R. to be the complete player and work on other aspects of his game."
Jamal Crawford scored 24 points and Al Horford scored 18 points and had 11 rebounds for Atlanta, which lost for only the second time in its past nine games.
"We just kind of ran out of energy," said Joe Johnson, who scored 16 for Atlanta. "We didn't have the intensity that we normally have."
Once Smith got in a rhythm, it was tough to stop him, Johnson added.
"You just have to play the best defense possible, get your hands up and hope he misses," Johnson said. "You have to give J.R. a lot of credit. He shot the ball tremendously. I thought he played a hell of a game tonight."
Leading by 12 at the half, Denver had its lead cut to 63-57 when Atlanta opened the third quarter with a 6-0 run.
Arron Afflalo responded with a 3-pointer as part of a 12-3 run capped by Anthony's three-point play that put the Nuggets back in front 75-60 with 7:19 remaining.
Going into the final period, the Nuggets led 92-82. Atlanta managed to hang around until the Nuggets went on an 18-7 run that included four 3-pointers by Smith, the last an off-balance fadeaway from 26 feet that brought the crowd to its feet and put Denver ahead 118-97 with 3:42 left.
Smith misfired on his final three shots from beyond the arc, leaving the game with little more than a minute remaining one 3-pointer shy of tying the franchise mark of 11 3-pointers in a game that he set April 13 against Sacramento, when he also scored a career-high 45 points.
Denver led 34-24 at the end of the first quarter, and the Nuggets stretched their lead to 16 points with an 8-2 burst highlighted by successive 3-pointers by Smith. But the Hawks had a surge of their own, pulling to within seven when Josh Smith converted a fast-break dunk and Johnson hit a jumper.
But Denver scored the next six points, starting with a dunk by Nene off a feed from Anthony Carter, en route to a 63-51 halftime lead.
Notes: Denver and Atlanta split the series for the fifth year in a row. ... The Nuggets improved to 16-0 when leading after the third quarter. ... The Hawks haven't won in Denver since a 98-96 victory on Dec. 6, 2006. ... Denver ranks second and Atlanta fourth in scoring in the NBA.