DENVER (NBA.com exclusive) -- Chauncey Billups ignited the Nuggets on Wednesday night, and then Carmelo Anthony finished off the Jazz.
Billups scored 14 of his 25 points in the third quarter to help erase an eight-point deficit, and then Anthony put an exclamation point on the 114-105 win with a steal and dunk midway through the fourth quarter.
It was only the first game of a long season, but considering how tight the Northwest Division will be this year, it was a big one.
"They're huge, especially the way we finished last year with our road record, this was a game we wanted to come out, make a statement and win," said Jazz guard Deron Williams, who had 28 points and 13 assists. "They won the division last year and this was a big game for us."
For long stretches it looked like the undermanned Jazz would steal a win when they built a 70-62 lead in the third. But the Nuggets, who reached the Western Conference finals last season for the first time in 24 years, showed why they went that far in the playoffs. Billups hit three 3-pointers and then gave the Nuggets the lead for good by hitting three free throws with .4 seconds left in the third.
"They started making a little run and then I had that dumb foul before the fourth quarter," Williams said. "It kind of gave them some momentum and we never really regained it."
Both teams were shorthanded Wednesday night. Injuries allowed the Jazz to dress only 11 players for opening night, and the Nuggets were without guard J.R. Smith, who is serving a seven-game suspension after he pled guilty to reckless driving in an accident that killed his childhood friend.
In his absence, the Nuggets found another source of energy in rookie guard Ty Lawson. Looking like a veteran, Lawson, who led North Carolina to the NCAA championship last spring, had 17 points, six assists and four rebounds in his NBA debut. The 5-foot-10 guard used his quickness to get into the lane and either find open teammates or go to the basket for an easy layup.
"There is such speed to the game when Ty is on the court," Nuggets coach George Karl said. "I think everyone knows that's how I want to play. He was very efficient and very effective.
He also impressed his teammates.
"No surprise to me," Billups said. "What he does is something that we need. You saw the importance of a Ty Lawson on our team tonight. When things started to break down he was able to get in there and cause a lot of problems. He can kick it out to the shooters."
Lawson said he was nervous before his first NBA game but he didn't play like it.
"First game of the year, a rookie, I didn't know how many minutes I was going to get so I was nervous," he said after logging 26 minutes. "I'm glad I got my nerves out and played well."
It helps to have plenty of veterans to follow, and none played bigger than Anthony. With Denver leading 96-88 with 6:17 left, Anthony missed a 3-pointer but then stole the ball from Paul Millsap and dunked over him, drawing a foul.
The play brought the sellout crowd to its feet and effectively ended Utah's hopes.
"I wasn't going to lay the ball up," said Anthony, who had a game-high 30 points. "I was going to dunk it."
Utah felt some lax defense contributed to Wednesday's loss.
"You're not going to win if you're not going to block people off the boards and get back and play defense," Utah coach Jerry Sloan said. "They went around us anytime they wanted to. We had a hard time keeping them in front of us."
For Denver, the win was more about starting well than making a statement. The Nuggets surprised many by reaching the Western Conference finals last spring as the No. 2 seed, but they know teams will be ready for them this year. So winning divisional games at home is vital.
"These games are big and they're going to, at some point, come back to haunt you if you don't take care of business, especially on your home floor," Billups said.