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Carmelo, Nuggets finally punch ticket to second round

By Chris Tomasson, for NBA.com
Posted Apr 30 2009 3:35AM

DENVER -- It's been a longtime staple on NBA highlight reels. Dikembe Mutombo is sprawled on the floor, holding the ball over his head in triumph, screaming with joy.

The Denver Nuggets moved that into the ancient history category on Wednesday night at the Pepsi Center .

For 15 years, it had been living history. That May 7, 1994 afternoon, when Mutombo's eighth-seeded Nuggets stunned top-seeded Seattle in a first-round series, had been the last time Denver won a playoff series.

But the drought is over. The Nuggets, who had lost the past five seasons in the first round, walloped New Orleans 107-86 to close out their West first-round series in five games.

"Finally,'' said Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony, the only player to have been active throughout Denver's last half-decade of disappointments. "It took me five years to get that gorilla off my back.''

The way Anthony moved Wednesday, he obviously could feel that monkey slipping off. He scored a game-high 34 points, playing the entire game until coming out to a standing ovation with 1:37 remaining.

The second-seeded Nuggets move on to face No. 6 Dallas in a West semifinal starting Sunday at the Pepsi Center . The way they're playing, Nuggets coach George Karl isn't counting on their season running out any time.

"I think we're good,'' Karl said. "I haven't been able to say that kind of in a proud way. I think we were good in this series. [More success is ahead] if we continue to play the right way and get better and learn how to play playoff basketball.''

Karl will get few arguments about his assessment of the Nuggets, and it would be a surprise if even one came from the Louisiana Bayou. In the four games the Nuggets won, they outscored New Orleans by an average of 30.8 points, including a 58-point rout in Game 4 that tied an NBA playoff record for biggest margin of victory.

"New Orleans is I think a banged-up team. I think they're hurting,'' Karl said. "There's no way we are 20 points better than them in four games. They're much better than that.''

Hornets center Tyson Chandler, his left ankle bothering him throughout the Playoffs, was scratched from the lineup Wednesday. Hornets guard Chris Paul, playing with a sore knee, logged a gritty 46 minutes, but clearly wasn't himself, shooting 5-of-16 for 12 points.

Paul shrugged off talk of his health after the game, saying, "I'm good.'' But New Orleans coach Byron Scott didn't deny Paul's knee "bothered him.''

Still, the Hornets led by as much as 25-16 in the first quarter. The score was tied 62-62 midway through the third quarter when the Nuggets erupted, going on a 14-0 run as guard J.R. Smith scored six of his 20 points.

The Nuggets spent the fourth quarter extending the lead. And getting the celebrating under way.

With 6:58 left, the fans began to chant, "We want Dallas .'' Soon, forward Kenyon Martin took off both his shoes and threw them into the stands.

With 1:37 remaining and before confetti falling was in synch with the final buzzer, Nuggets guard Chauncey Billups joined Anthony in coming out of the game and getting a standing ovation. Unless you've been on an extended African safari, you know the Denver native provided the Nuggets with a huge boost when he came home in a Nov. 3 trade from Detroit .

"It feels great, especially with me being a hometown kid and, from afar, following the struggles [the Nuggets have] had the last four or five years in the first round,'' said Billups, who had advanced to the East finals the previous six seasons with the Pistons and averaged 22.6 points against the Hornets.

"It's crazy that monkey is big around everybody's shoulders around here. It's good to get that off even though I haven't lost in the first round in a long time. Being around here all year, everybody's putting [a lot of emphasis] on the first round. I shoot higher than that. That's just the first step.''

Talk of monkeys and gorillas slipping off shoulders and backs was a big post-game topic. Anthony brought it twice after the NBA's longest active streak of not winning a playoff series had been snapped.

"It's been a long time since the Nuggets got out of the first round,'' Anthony said. "I'm just excited right now. I got a gorilla off my back. I can just focus on Dallas now.''

And now even Karl doesn't expect to feel too bad when watching highlights of Mutombo holding the ball over his head.

Karl, you see, was the losing coach that afternoon 15 years ago in Seattle .

"It's symbolic,'' Karl said. "That was a miserable part of my life, and this is a powerful part of my life ... Denver should go out and celebrate.''

At last look, those in Denver were partying like it was 1994.

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