DENVER (AP) -It's been 31 years since the Denver Nuggets hit the halfway mark in better shape, and probably that long since they headed into the second half with such optimism.
Even with Carmelo Anthony sidelined with a broken hand, the Nuggets are setting themselves up for a memorable season thanks to some roster shuffling that not only shed salary and got the team under the luxury tax for the first time in years but greatly improved the product on the court.
The Nuggets have been an entirely different team with Chauncey Billups running the show after his arrival from Detroit in the Allen Iverson trade on Nov. 3.
``We're in a good place,'' coach George Karl said. ``The courage of our team has been exemplary. I trust this team. This team figures out how to play and how to win.''
ird-best halfway mark in team history and the best since 1977-78, when they were 28-13.
Suddenly, the Nuggets look like they'll end their five-year streak of first-round flameouts in the playoffs, especially if they land a player at the trade deadline next month, when they'll be able to focus on helping themselves on the court instead of the pocketbook.
With Billups running things so well, Karl doesn't have to call timeouts and shuffle his lineup as much as he did when he lacked a traditional point guard.
``I can tell you my feelings going into games. I'm a nervous guy, I'm a scared guy, but usually an hour before games there's always a peace that comes over me that I like the challenge. That's probably the first time that's happened since I've been in Denver,'' Karl said. ``My nervousness has always gone to 'We can't do that,' or 'How are we going to do that?' There's no challenge out there that our team can't adjust to.''
The Nuggets hope to get 'Melo back in a couple weeks, but they've stayed atop the Northwest Division even with him in street clothes - Denver leads Portland by 2 1/2 games and Utah by 3 heading into the season's second half - because they're so well-rounded.
e bench, especially with 'Melo out.
But the biggest boost by far is the addition of Billups, who is averaging just under 20 points and seven assists. While the Pistons have been up-and-down with Iverson, the Nuggets are riding high with Billups, who led Detroit to an NBA title and six straight conference championship series.
``I bring so much knowledge to the game. I try not to let ourselves kill ourselves,'' Billups said. ``I have been in so many situations in basketball. I feel like I know the game inside and out. I play with a cerebral touch. These guys listen, they want to learn and they want to be really good and be All-Stars.''
Smith has benefited from Iverson's departure, gobbling up minutes he otherwise wouldn't have, but what he likes about the blockbuster trade is that he has a new mentor in Billups.
``We work well together. I have learned a lot in such a short time because he is a great point guard,'' Smith said. ``I hope I've gotten better because of his presence.''
With Iverson gone, so is the team's propensity to focus on outscoring teams. Now, there's a genuine pride in defense, something Karl and his staff decided to harp on last summer.
``I like the defense. We've rolled up wins because of our defense,'' Smith said.
Billups has helped foster that focus.
ends with defense,'' he said. ``It is details, little things defensively that make a difference. It is playing smart and not just hawking your guy. We struggled in the past. It is something that takes time.''
To a man, the Nuggets were forced to pay more attention to defense when Marcus Camby was jettisoned in the offseason in a salary cap move, and none of them has shied away from the responsibility.
``Defense wins championships,'' Martin said. ``We want to win a championship.''

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