DENVER -- J.R. Smith made so many boneheaded plays in the postseason last year that he got a benching and a public scolding from his coach.
After working his way out of George Karl's doghouse this season, the new and improved Smith has led the Denver Nuggets to the cusp of a return trip to the NBA playoffs.
The super sub's 23-point performance sparked Denver to a 111-94 rout of the Houston Rockets on Sunday night that both clarified and cluttered the wild Western Conference playoff race.
"That's all he's got to do -- is come into the game and the energy is there," said Allen Iverson, who scored 33 points. "It hypes us up. You look at the things he does on the floor, it excites us as teammates. Just see the way he can shoot the ball, the way he can dribble the ball, the way he can jump -- he has the whole package.
"There's nothing on the court he can't do."
It was the 13th time Smith has come off the bench to score 20 or more points, most in the NBA among players who haven't started a single game.
"He's been a big spark for us, bringing that energy and excitement we were looking for," Carmelo Anthony said. "He's come around for us. It's just great to see him out there playing the way he's playing and knowing he's a big part of our success."
Now all the Nuggets have to do to reach the playoffs for the fifth consecutive time is beat lowly Memphis on Wednesday night at home.
Denver (49-32) moved a half-game ahead of Golden State for the eighth and final playoff spot. The Nuggets might even be able to catch Dallas for the seventh seed if the Mavericks lose at home to New Orleans on Wednesday night.
As for the Rockets (54-26), they can still secure the top seed in the West, but they're going to need plenty of help to do it.
First off, they need to win their final two games, Monday night at Utah and Wednesday night at home against the Los Angeles Clippers. They also need the two teams ahead of them to lose Tuesday night at home: the conference-leading Los Angeles Lakers will play Sacramento and New Orleans will welcome the Clippers.
McGrady was flabbergasted the Rockets played so poorly with so much to play for on this night.
"That team needed a win badly and we played like it really didn't matter to us," McGrady said. "And at this point in the season, although we clinched, we still have to bring it every night."
The Rockets fell 1½ games behind the Lakers atop the crazy conference, where Golden State could become the first team in NBA history to win 50 games and miss the playoffs.
"I'm not so concerned about the No. 1 spot," McGrady said. "I'm more concerned about how we're playing right now."
Bouncing in and out of the eighth and final playoff spot for a month, no team has had more of a roller-coaster ride than the Nuggets, who won a huge game at Golden State only to lose at Utah on Saturday night before bouncing back against the Rockets.
"It's impossible to feel good, because for three weeks we've been feeling stressed," Karl said. "You never play three playoff teams in three games in four nights in three different cities that had huge, huge ramifications. We survived it; we won two out of three, but we're still not out of the woods."
To have a shot at keeping the Nuggets out of the postseason party, the Warriors need to win Monday night at Phoenix and Wednesday against Seattle.
But even that won't matter if the Nuggets handle their business against the lottery-bound Grizzlies, who will be playing the second game of a back-to-back against a Denver team that will have had two days off.
Iverson said the enigmatic Nuggets certainly won't blow it now that they finally have their postseason destiny in their own hands.
"We understand what's at stake, and we don't underestimate them because we know they have talented guys on their team," Iverson said.
This was a surprisingly easy victory for the Nuggets, who raced to 43 fastbreak points while the Rockets shot 34 percent. Denver pulled away with a 10-0 first-half run sparked by back-to-back 3-pointers from Smith.
Luther Head led Houston with 19 points and McGrady scored 16. Marcus Camby grabbed 14 rebounds, all but one of them off the defensive glass, and blocked seven shots for Denver, which led 61-44 at halftime and never looked back.
"We didn't have any energy at all," Houston forward Chuck Hayes said. "They were the team that played the night before, but we played like we had. Maybe it meant more to them and we paid for it."
- Anthony was held to 11 points on 3-of-14 shooting despite the absence of Rockets defensive specialist Shane Battier, who missed his second successive game with a bruised left foot and ankle after playing in 221 consecutive games.
- Houston G Bobby Jackson (left knee) also sat out.