Smith leads Nuggets past short-handed Clippers

DENVER — J.R. Smith hopped back downcourt following his second straight 3-pointer that forced a timeout. He held his scorching right hand while teammates Carmelo Anthony and Dahntay Jones acted as if they had to use fire extinguishers to cool him off.

“I tried to put the fire out,” Anthony said, “but it didn’t work.”

Smith’s scintillating 34-point performance off the bench sparked the Denver Nuggets’ 120-104 win over the short-handed Los Angeles Clippers Saturday night for their 11th win in 12 games.

Afterward, Jones stepped in front of the cameras crowded around Smith’s locker and declared, “J.R. Smith, sixth man of the year. You’ve got to give it to him.”

Smith thinks that will honor go to Dallas’ Jason Terry. What he has on his mind is some playoff success.

The Nuggets’ winning ways have them on the cusp of earning home-court advantage in a playoff series for the first time since the 1988 Western Conference semifinals.

Denver is one of four NBA teams that have made the playoffs every year since 2003-04, joining Dallas, Detroit and San Antonio. But the Nuggets are the only one of the four who haven’t won a single playoff series in that span.

And Smith is getting hot at the perfect time for Denver (51-26), which leads San Antonio by a game for the No. 2 seed in the West.

He’s 15-for-27 from 3-point range in the last two games and 5-for-7 from inside the arc while averaging 31 points.

“Just everything I throw up is going in right now,” Smith said. “Hopefully I keep it up right into the playoffs.”

Anthony added 18 points for the Nuggets. Zach Randolph led L.A. with 22 points, and DeAndre Jordan added 21.

Smith scored 21 points in just 12 first-half minutes as the Nuggets raced to a 66-47 halftime lead.

“He’s been on fire,” Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy said, inadvertently amplifying the theme. “The first couple of 3s, our bigs weren’t up close enough to him and he just drilled them. We got a little bit better as the game went on, but 21 points in the first half, it got away from us. That really decided most of the game.”

The depleted Clippers were missing Marcus Camby (ankle), Mardy Collins (foot), Ricky Davis (knee), Al Thornton (foot), and Chris Kaman (flu), and Dunleavy had no choice but to play Steve Novak, who scored nine points in 22 minutes on a tender ankle.

Smith didn’t just impress with his long-ball jumpers and his 12-for-20 shooting. He had three assists, including a sweet one from underneath that resulted in a 3-point swish from a wide-open Chauncey Billups.

“Man, I love watching it,” Billups said. “He’s as hot as anybody in the league right now, so just put the ball in his hands and watch the show.”

On a night where the outcome was never in doubt, Smith provided the fuel for some fun. The fire extinguisher theatrics came after his 3-pointer gave Denver a 112-89 lead.

“I got crazy teammates. We’ve got to beat LeBron and them, man, they’re killing us right now,” Smith said, referring to LeBron James and the pretend photos he takes of his preening Cleveland teammates with his fake camera during timeouts.

There’s nothing phony about Smith’s hot hand.

“It’s just one of those things where you feel numb. I mean, everything you throw up is hitting nothing but net and my teammates are egging me on,” Smith said.

Dunleavy said Smith is the X-factor for the Nuggets in the playoffs.

“No question. He’s the perfect guy coming off your bench, somebody that’s that explosive, puts numbers on the board for you. He just breaks a game wide open,” Dunleavy said.

Kenyon Martin sat out with sore ribs and Denver coach George Karl said he might also sit him Sunday night at Minnesota, which would give him almost a full week’s rest when he returns against Oklahoma City on Wednesday night. Johan Petro started in Martin’s place.<

Notes:@ The Nuggets wore their green uniforms for the second straight game as part of the league’s Green Week. … Denver swept the Clippers in a four-game season series for the first time since 1994-95.

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