for this game

Hornets, Nuggets set to battle for playoff positioning

Mar 24, 2009 - 9:32 PM By Dan Pieringer Stats Writer

Denver (45-26) at New Orleans (44-25) 8:00 p.m. EDT

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- The New Orleans Hornets have taken advantage of an extended favorable stretch in their schedule to stay in the middle of the heated playoff race in the Western Conference.

Continuing their recent success will likely be more challenging against a Denver Nuggets team that's also feasted on lesser opponents lately to reclaim the top spot in the Northwest Division.

The Hornets look to cap a five-game homestand with their fourth straight win and get a rare victory over a fellow contender when they meet the Nuggets on Wednesday night.

New Orleans (44-25) has won 12 of 15 since entering a 21-game stretch that features only six opponents that currently have winning records and two road games against teams above .500. That hot streak has the Hornets in the thick of the crowded West playoff picture.

"We're right there," coach Byron Scott said after a 99-89 win over lowly Golden State on Sunday. "It's going to be a tight race until the end of the season. Every game is critical."

While Scott's club has made the most of its favorable schedule lately, games against fellow contenders are of particular importance with the West standings so tightly packed. The Hornets enter this game in a virtual tie with the Nuggets (45-26).

"Really good team coming in here," Hornets point guard Chris Paul said. "They have Carmelo (Anthony) coming in now, Chauncey (Billups) has been playing well and so has J.R. Smith. Big game for us here at home, but as long as the fans continue to come out and support us, I think we will be OK."

Since the All-Star break, the Hornets are 3-4 against teams with winning records, including 1-3 versus clubs in playoff position in the West.

The Nuggets, meanwhile, have lost their last three against teams above .500, including a 118-115 defeat at Phoenix on Monday night that snapped a five-game winning streak against lesser opponents.

Anthony led six Nuggets in double figures with 29 points, but Denver was held without a field goal in the last two minutes.

"They're fighting to get in and we're fighting to better our position so that's what you're going to have in those types of games," Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin said.

Part of the Nuggets' problem down the stretch was the absence of center Nene, who was given a flagrant foul 2 and ejected with 7:25 remaining when he grabbed Suns center Louis Amundson and threw him to the floor.

"We missed him out there," Anthony said of Nene, averaging 14.6 points and 7.8 rebounds while ranking second in the league in field-goal percentage at 60.3 - all career highs. "We needed him."

The NBA will likely review the flagrant foul - and the possibility that Nene bumped an official after getting ejected - and could suspend him for the season series finale with New Orleans.

The Hornets split two games in Denver before beating the Nuggets 94-81 at home Jan. 28. Paul was held to 12 points and 3-for-12 shooting in that game after averaging 26.0 points and shooting 61.3 percent in the first two meetings.

Anthony missed the loss in New Orleans with a hand injury but averaged 23.0 points and shot 60.0 percent in two home games against the Hornets.

Billups hasn't had as much success against them, having been held to 12.7 points and 28.6 percent shooting in three games.