for this game

Nuggets banking on home-court edge

Apr 18, 2009 - 10:56 PM New Orleans Hornets at Denver Nuggets, Western Conference first round, 10:30 p.m. EDT

DENVER (AP) -- It's been 21 years since the Denver Nuggets opened a playoff series at home and 15 years since they were anything but first-round fodder.

Their reward for tying their franchise record with a 54-win season and earning the second seed in the Western Conference? A first-round date with the New Orleans Hornets, All-Stars Chris Paul and David West and their nasty pick-and-roll offense.

To capitalize on their home-court edge, the Nuggets need to handle both Paul, who beat out Chauncey Billups for the backup point guard spot on the U.S. Olympic team last summer, and West, who essentially took Carmelo Anthony's spot on the All-Star team.

Kenyon Martin said that will be easier to do at the Pepsi Center, where the series starts Sunday night.

"It's huge. If you win all your games at home nobody can beat you," Martin said.

Paul was runner-up in the MVP voting last year and had an even better encore, averaging 22.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and an NBA-best 11 assists this season.

And many of those numbers came right off the pick-and-roll, the Hornets' bread and butter.

"Chris Paul is the key to it," West said Saturday. "He creates things off the pick-and-roll for himself and the rest of us. He is good at it. He makes the right decisions almost every single time."

Containing Paul is Denver's top priority, followed closely by limiting West's touches.

"Chris Paul has the ball in his hands 85, 90 percent of the time," Martin said. "If we can make it difficult on him, we can make it difficult on the other guys."

The Hornets are hoping Paul can ratchet up his game in the playoffs like he did last year.

"Last year, with the playoffs he had ... everybody was pretty much crowning him the best point guard in the world. And I don't think he let anybody down this season," Hornets coach Byron Scott said. "So this is where you can make your reputation. This is where the stage is set for guys who haven't had real good years to all of a sudden kind of make up for it."

Or for players who have had solid seasons to top it off with some spectacular playoff performances.

That's what the Nuggets are expecting from Billups, who led the Detroit Pistons to six straight Eastern Conference Finals and the 2004 NBA championship before coming to Denver in the Allen Iverson trade.

Billups' arrival a week into the season transformed the Nuggets. He's taken all their immense individual talents and blended them into a cohesive unit that looks primed to finally make some noise in the playoffs.

"I think this is our year," Anthony said. "I think we can go pretty far. I don't really like saying how far we can go, but if we play the way we're capable of playing, I think the sky's the limit for us."

While Iverson never really got it going in Detroit, the Nuggets were transfigured in no time behind Billups.

"I sat back the first week and a half and studied everybody's game, tendencies and work habits," Billups said. "As a leader, you have to lead in different ways with different players. Personalities are different. As a point guard, you have to know how to reach everybody. I studied everybody and figured out how I could best help 'Melo, how I could best help J.R. (Smith), L.K. (Linas Kleiza)."

Nuggets coach George Karl said Billups' no-drama, get-your-hands-dirty style was the perfect potion.

Billups brought that style to Denver along with his cerebral approach that helped him quickly figure out what he had to work with as he tried to turn the Nuggets from perennial also-rans into a legitimate threat.

"I studied guys' habits and tendencies when they're playing well, when they're struggling. All that stuff that people don't realize is huge, I've realized it is huge," Billups said. "To be able to talk to people when they are struggling or when they're playing good, to get them confidence when they're playing good and playing bad, how to get people in their sweet spots when they're struggling. Little things like that I think great point guards learned how to do over the course of their careers."

The Hornets and Nuggets split the season series, although the teams weren't at full strength when they met. The Nuggets were missing Anthony for one of their losses and the Hornets never had Tyson Chandler and also were without Peja Stojakovic in one of those losses.

While the Nuggets, thanks to a terrific bench, won 14 of their last 17 games, the Hornets struggled down the stretch, losing six of their last eight, in part because of injuries and an inconsistent bench.

"Now it's a new season," Paul said. "We start Sunday and it's 0-0. It's a clean slate. Everything that's taken place this season all goes out the window. We have a chance to right that ship now."

The Nuggets are thankful they get to start the postseason at home for once.

"In many ways, this is the best basketball team that we've had going into the playoffs," Karl said. "Now we've got to go prove it."

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