ATLANTA (AP) — As the final seconds ticked off, George Karl broke into a sly grin sitting on the bench, clearly pleased by another impressive performance from his remade team.
The Denver coach has plenty of reasons to smile.
On this night, it was because of Nene, who scored 20 points, and J.R. Smith, who added all of his 15 in the fourth quarter to lead the Nuggets to another win in the post-Carmelo Anthony era, 102-87 over the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday.
Without Anthony playing a starring role, Karl is never quite sure who’s going to stand out on any given night.
He likes it that way.
“The other team can’t know what we’re going to do because we don’t know what we’re going to do,” Karl said. “I just enjoy coaching them and they enjoy playing right now. Everybody had their moment. It’s kind of a fun team. I don’t know who’s going to finish most nights.”
The Nuggets improved to 9-2 since the blockbuster trade sending Anthony to the New York Knicks. Anyone can see they’re having more fun after dealing with the monthslong saga involving Melo’s future, spreading the ball around, playing fierce defense and exuding a chemistry that seemed to be missing before.
“It’s fun to play basketball the right way,” Kenyon Martin said. “It always has been, always will be. When everybody’s out there sharing the ball, everybody’s involved, it just makes everyone want to play that much harder on the defensive end.”
Atlanta’s All-Star center, Al Horford, was envious after watching Denver pull away.
“They really spread you out,” he said. “They have six or seven weapons. They’re a great team. We play like that at times. Other times, we don’t. We’d be a better team if we played like them.”
It looked as if the game would go down to the wire when Zaza Pachulia flipped in a putback, pulling the Hawks to 72-69 with just over 10 minutes remaining.
But Denver dominated the rest of the way, outscoring the home team 30-18. The Nuggets hardly missed in the fourth quarter, making 12 of 18 from the field — including four 3-pointers.
Smith knocked down three of those, part of a 6-of-7 fourth quarter after he took only three shots — and missed them all — over the first three quarters.
Pachulia led the Hawks with 19 points off the bench, but the Hawks got little production out of their starters.
“We got Zaza Pachulia being their leading scorer,” Martin said. “You know what I’m saying? We’ll take that.”
Josh Smith missed his first six attempts and finished with 13 points on 4-of-16 shooting. Joe Johnson struggled, too. One night after scoring 36 points against Milwaukee, he was held to 12 by the Nuggets. The All-Star went 4 of 13 from the field after making six straight 3-pointers in a 25-point win over the Bucks.
Nene dominated on the inside, making shots or drawing fouls (he was 8 of 9 at the line). Aron Afflalo returned to the lineup after missing three games with a strained left hamstring and scored 15 points. Wilson Chandler added 14 and Martin had 12.
With Johnson and Smith struggling, the Hawks got good work off the bench from Pachulia and Jamal Crawford, who combined for 16 points in the first half.
The duo sparked Atlanta after a sluggish start, pushing the Hawks to a 12-point lead with about 7 1/2 minutes left in the second quarter. But the Nuggets dominated the rest of the period, ripping off a 16-2 run that included seven points from Nene. Denver went to the break up 46-42.
Crawford had 13 points, and Marvin Williams contributed 10 off the bench. The Hawks got nearly as many points from their bench (42) as the starters (45).
Horford barely touched the ball at all on the offensive end, putting up just five shots and finishing with seven points.
“We’ve got to share the ball more,” he said. “It shows we’re still an immature team. There’s no question something needs to be done.”
Added Horford, “It’s happened to us all year. This is nothing new.”
NOTES: When Afflalo came off the court after the pregame warmup, Karl asked nonchalantly, “Are you playing?” Afflalo said he was. “Wanna start?” Karl said. “Yes!” Afflalo responded. … Hawks coach Larry Drew was liking a new lineup that has Johnson starting at small forward, Jeff Teague and Kirk Hinrich teaming up in the backcourt, with Williams comes off the bench. “We’re going to stick with this lineup for now and see how it goes,” Drew said before the game. He might want to reconsider. Hinrich had only nine points, Teague just four on 1-of-7 shooting. … The Nuggets were staying in Atlanta an extra night after their chartered jet had mechanical problems. They’ll head to Orlando on Thursday, still one day before facing the Magic.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)