J.R. Smith shows his versatility as Nuggets rout Raptors

Shooting guard turns into playmaker in Felton's absence.

Blessed with unlimited shooting range and unrivaled athleticism, Nuggets guard J.R. Smith has made a name for himself on the strength of his explosive scoring ability and acrobatic dunks.

On Monday night, he embraced the role of playmaker.

With backup point guard Raymond Felton still recovering from a sprained ankle, Smith tied his career high with eight assists and made a spirited run at his first career triple-double in Denver’s 123-90 win over the Toronto Raptors.

Smith also had 13 points and 10 rebounds to help the Nuggets win their seventh straight home game and snap a brief two-game losing streak.

“I felt that was the best game I have played since being here (in Denver),” said Smith, who is in his fifth season with the Nuggets. “All around, it felt great to get out there and get assists – get my teammates involved opposed to (me) rifling up shots.”

Nuggets coach George Karl, always honest in his evaluation of Smith, could hardly disagree.

“J.R. did a great job playing point guard,” Karl said. “It was one of the smarter, more controlled games that I’ve seen him play.”

Smith was a catalyst in the second quarter, handing out six assists during a six-minute stretch in which the Nuggets pushed the lead from 13 points to 29. Smith had a hand in 22 of Denver’s 36 points in the quarter.

“He just played a great floor game,” Nuggets forward Al Harrington said. “He played a lot of minutes at point guard and did a great job.”

The starting point guard wasn’t bad, either.

Ty Lawson scored 17 of his 23 points in the first quarter and matched Smith with eight assists for the game.

“I was trying to get other people involved,” Lawson said. “I was hot early. In the second half, I wanted to take it easy and get everybody involved.”

Since the All-Star break, the Nuggets (42-29) have displayed the balance of Baryshnikov – and Monday was no exception.

Seven players scored in double figures, six had at least five rebounds and four had at least four assists as Denver continued its home dominance. During their current Pepsi Center winning streak, the Nuggets have won by average of 18.7 points.

“We’re definitely playing great at home,” forward Danilo Gallinari said. “I remember when I was in New York, it was tough to come to come into Denver and play the Nuggets because of the altitude and many reasons.”

The 6-foot-10 Gallinari played the small forward as Karl went with a big lineup in the absence of starting shooting guard Arron Afflalo, who has missed five of the past seven games with a strained left hamstring.

Blessed with more depth than a Keats poem, Karl has the luxury of mixing and matching lineups based on injuries, effectiveness and specific matchups.

If Lawson is struggling at the point, he can turn to Felton. If Nene or Kenyon Martin run into foul trouble, he can turn to Gallinari and Chris Andersen. If Afflalo or Wilson Chandler start slow, he can turn to Smith, Harrington or Gary Forbes for a spark off the bench.

“I don’t really have to talk about the hammer effect,” Karl said. “Everybody knows it. Everybody has a little bit of a hammer over their head.”

The hammer likely will carry a little more weight when the Nuggets face the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday. Felton said he plans to return after missing two games with a sprained left ankle, but Afflalo could miss two more games after aggravating his hamstring injury during Denver’s four-game road trip.

ETC: Karl was scheduled to have surgery this week to remove a filter that helps prevent blood clots, but he pushed it back to next week when the Nuggets have four days between games … The Nuggets led by as many as 41 points in the fourth quarter, the largest lead they have held in any game this season … Andersen blocked five shots, matching Toronto’s total as a team … The Nuggets reduced their magic number for clinching a playoff spot to six.

Aaron Lopez
Aaron J. Lopez is the primary writer for Nuggets.com, providing behind-the-scenes content, including feature stories and video for the site. Before joining the Nuggets in 2009, he spent 15 years covering Colorado sports for the Rocky Mountain News and the Associated Press, making him one of the longest-tenured sports writers in Denver. Aaron's full bio...