NEW ORLEANS -- Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul got tangled up away from the ball and crashed to the floor.
Paul was whistled for the foul and the crowd booed, while Anthony, lying on his back, shook his head and laughed in disbelief that the call had gone in his favor.
It was a good omen for Anthony and the Nuggets, who had most things going their way in a game they desperately wanted to win.
Anthony scored 29 points and Denver beat New Orleans 101-88 on Wednesday night, snapping the Hornets' three-game winning streak while gaining ground in the tight Western Conference playoff race.
"This might be the biggest win for us of the year," Anthony said.
Chauncey Billups scored 26 points, hitting four of his five 3-pointers in the second half to help the Nuggets pull away after the game was tied with a little over seven minutes to go in the third quarter.
"I had opportunities and if I can get my feet set and squared up I feel like I can make a lot of them," Billups said of his long-range shooting. "Most nights I don't really get those opportunities because teams don't let me get that, but we moved the ball really well. We got guys in the paint, 'Melo got going, J.R. [Smith] hit some big ones. In the absence of Nene, I thought everyone came out and played good."
Nene was unable to play after being hit with a two-game suspension by the NBA for head-butting an opponent during the Nuggets' loss in Phoenix on Monday night. Without him, the Nuggets still managed to build a 21-point lead in the fourth quarter.
Nuggets coach George Karl took particular satisfaction in his club performing so well on the road against a fellow playoff contender.
"What happens at the end of the season is your home games become double the pressure because you can't lose at home," Karl said. "When you steal one against like, New Orleans, it's a double-weighted hammer."
The score was tied at 55 when Anthony scored six quick points on two free throws and a pair of transition jumpers. The flurry began a 17-6 run that lasted late into the third quarter, putting Denver up 72-61. Billups drained his third 3 of the game during the spurt, while Kenyon Martin dunked and J.R. Smith converted a tough driving layup into a crowd.
Billups added two more 3s and a mid-range jumper early the fourth quarter. Then Smith, a former Hornets first-round draft choice, nailed a 3 to give Denver a 94-73 lead with 7:38 left.
Fans began heading for the exits, while one yelled, "you never should have let him go," in an apparent reference to Smith, who had 16 points.
Chris Paul had 19 points and 13 assists, and David West scored 18 points for New Orleans (44-26), which dropped a game behind Denver (46-26) in the Western Conference standings.
"Everything is so close right now that every game is a big game," Paul said. "We're fine. We would have liked to finish the season 13-0, but it probably wasn't going to happen."
Hilton Armstrong and Rasual Butler each scored 10 points for New Orleans, which played an unusually sloppy game. Denver wound up converting 19 Hornets turnovers into 18 points. Paul turned the ball over six times.
"We just wanted to jump him, make it hard for him, not give him no holes, no cracks," Anthony said.
Anthony started quickly, scoring 13 points in the first quarter alone, with his 3-pointer giving Denver a 24-14 lead.
"I wanted to come out and be aggressive and let my teammates know tonight is a game I will be trying to go after it," he said. "They fed off of that. We stopped them, we got us some transition points, some easy baskets and our shot was falling."
Smith's 3-pointer to open the second quarter gave Denver a 31-21 lead. The Hornets clawed back with mostly reserves on the floor and Paul on the bench. Morris Peterson's 3 ignited a 12-2 run, capped by Antonio Daniels' 3-pointer, which tied the game at 33.
New Orleans briefly took a 44-43 lead on Julian Wright's three-point play, a fast-break underhanded flip off the glass as he was being held by Anthony Carter. Billups responded with his first 3-pointer of the game, and Denver led 46-45 at halftime.
Hornets C Tyson Chandler (left ankle) missed his fourth straight game, while swingman Peja Stojakovic (back) missed his 11th straight game. ... Denver won for only the second time in its last nine road games, improving to 19-18 away from home. ... New Orleans lost only its third home game in its last 13. ... The Nuggets are 46-26, the best record through 72 games since the Nuggets joined the NBA. ... This was the fourth and final meeting of the regular season between New Orleans and Denver, who finished with a 2-2 split.