- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 21, 2009

DENVER | The cavalry didn’t show up Friday night to rescue the depleted Washington Wizards, but perhaps there was a horse or two in sight.

The Wizards lost 116-105 to the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center for their 10th loss in 12 games. Still, there were encouraging signs despite the injury-devastated team dressing just nine players.

“Sooner or later, the cavalry will ride over the hills to help us out,” interim coach Ed Tapscott said before the game.

Early on, it looked as if the Wizards (16-54) might have a shot to serve a spoiler role against the Northwest Division-leading Nuggets (45-25). They led by as many as seven points in the first quarter.

In the end, though, there was too much J.R. Smith, who scored a season-high 40 points. The guard made up for a so-so night from Carmelo Anthony, who scored 20 points on 6-for-16 shooting.

“Hestepped up and made big shots,” Wizards guard Mike James said. “He played well. It happens. He came out early and got into his rhythmand he stayed aggressive.”

Antawn Jamison led the Wizards with 27 points, 15 in the first quarter when the Wizards took a 31-28 lead. But he scored just seven points in the second and third quarters combined.

Smith sizzled all night. He scored nine points in the first, 10 in the second, 11 in the third and 10 in the fourth as the Nuggets pulled away from the Wizards, who were playing their third leg of a four-game Western Conference trip.

“I think the guys competed and played hard,” Tapscott said. “We just didn’t make solid basketball players. We made too many errors.”

The Wizards were without guard Juan Dixon, who sat out with a strained right Achilles tendon suffered Wednesday against the Los Angeles Clippers, and forward Caron Butler, who missed his fourth straight game with a strained left hamstring. Dixon said he’ll “probably” be back Monday against Chicago, and Butler said he expects to return “the middle of next week,” which could mean Wednesday against Charlotte.

“It’s just sore,” Dixon said. “It’s tight.”

Before the game, Tapscott said there’s “extra incentive” facing playoff teams as the Wizards play out the final days of the season. The Wizards came out with an extra bounce, taking a 7-2 lead.

When reserve center JaVale McGee split a pair of foul shots with 2:33 left in the first, the Wizards had a surprising 27-20 lead. Washington still was up 32-28 early in second quarter, but the fun soon was halted.

The Nuggets closed the second quarter with a 30-19 spurt to lead 58-51 at halftime. Denver took an 86-76 lead at the end of the third quarter. Still, the Wizards wouldn’t go away. They cut the deficit to 86-79 early in the fourth.

But the high altitude and limited number of bodies soon caught up with Washington. The Nuggets, who scored 17 of their 30 fast-break points in the second half, scored nine straight to seal the win.

“We just stopped doing what was giving us success in the first half,” said James, who had nine assists. “We stopped running pick-and-roll. … It doesn’t matter (the Wizards had just nine players available). We’ve got to go out and play, and guys have got to step up.”