Smith knocks down franchise-high 11 3's as Nuggets lock up Northwest title

DENVER -- J.R. Smith grabbed the ball in the final seconds and raced to halfcourt. Fans screaming his name figured he'd fire up one last 3-pointer. Instead, he dribbled out the clock.

Smith had a career-high 45 points and franchise-best 11 3-pointers to help the Denver Nuggets clinch the Northwest Division title and home-court edge in the playoffs for the first time in 21 years with a 118-98 win over the Sacramento Kings on Monday night.

Smith's point total was the highest ever for a Nuggets reserve and helped Denver tie the franchise record for most wins in a season with 54.

So, what more could he want?

"Twelve would have been great," Smith said when informed the NBA record for 3-pointers in a game was 12 held by Kobe Bryant and Donyell Marshall.

"If I would have known that, I would have shot the last one," Smith said.

And on this night, he probably would have swished it, too.

Smith was so hot down the stretch, when he single-handedly turned a nail-biter into a laugher, that the Kings resorted to fouling him intentionally so he wouldn't get off 3-pointers. Twice he did anyway, and he sank all three foul shots both times.

With chants of "J.R." cascading from the rafters, Smith sank half of his 3s in the fourth quarter, when he scored 23 points.

"I could have bounced it off the floor and it would have went in," Smith suggested.

The Nuggets (54-27) tied their franchise record for most wins since joining the NBA in 1976. They can break that mark with a victory in their regular-season finale Wednesday night at Portland.

Denver clinched at least the third seed in the Western Conference. The Nuggets would secure the No. 2 seed with a win at Portland or if Houston loses at Dallas on Wednesday night.

Either way, star Carmelo Anthony finally has the home-court advantage on his side as he tries to end five straight seasons of first-round exits by the Nuggets.

Anthony had 21 points, nine assists and nine rebounds in 32 minutes against Sacramento, which was led by Ike Diogu's career-best 32 points.

Anthony spent the fourth quarter cheering on Smith, who's been in a zone for three weeks.

"Man, I want to stay in it the rest of my life, it's a great feeling," Smith said. "My phone's vibrating right now from my mom calling. I can imagine the phone calls there's going to be tonight."

Smith's 11 3-pointers -- on 18 attempts -- bested the franchise mark of nine set by Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in 1995 and tied by Michael Adams in 1991. Smith's previous career high was eight, which he accomplished three times, including earlier this month against Utah.

Smith's previous career high for points was 43 at Chicago 14 months ago. His 45 points came despite playing just 29 1/2 minutes.

Denver wasn't expected to even make the playoffs this year after defensive stalwarts Marcus Camby and Eduardo Najera weren't brought back. But a week into the new season, Nuggets executive Mark Warkentien pulled off the biggest trade in the NBA, acquiring Chauncey Billups from Detroit for Allen Iverson.

While Iverson struggled in Detroit, Billups molded the Nuggets' individual talents into a cohesive unit and Denver found itself with a team that not only made the playoffs, but has visions of finally making some noise in the postseason.

But the Nuggets had a harder time with the Kings than they or their fans might have imagined -- and Sacramento was missing three starters.

Center Spencer Hawes injured his left knee on a flagrant foul by Kenyon Martin in the first quarter and did not return.

"It was scary there for a few minutes, but luckily it doesn't appear to be too serious," said Hawes, who will undergo a precautionary MRI back in Sacramento on Tuesday.

The Kings already were without two other starters, guards Beno Udrih and Kevin Martin, both of whom have sore left ankles.

But they trailed just 62-58 at the break after leading by as many as 11.

The Kings pulled to 80-79 in the third quarter but Smith took over in the fourth.

"We kind of wore down, but I think everybody left it out on the floor," Diogu said. "They just had more depth than us. They're a playoff team and J.R. got hot at the end."

Nuggets coach George Karl noted that Smith won't get so many open looks in the playoffs.

"The shots are not playoff shots, unfortunately," said Karl, who often cringes when Smith starts firing up shots from 5 feet beyond the arc or while off-balance, as he was Monday night.

But what can he say when they keep falling, one after the other?

"The comfort zone is not my comfort zone," Karl said. "But maybe it will become my comfort zone."

Game notes
In his first game since April 2, Kenyon Martin scored 13 points. He had been out with bruised ribs. ... Nuggets G Dahntay Jones bruised his right shoulder in the third quarter and didn't return, and center Nene chipped a tooth in the third quarter. ... Denver went 3-1 against Sacramento for the first time since 1992-93. ... Diogu's previous career high was 27 points on Dec. 23, 2005, at Detroit when he was with Golden State.