DENVER -- For the fourth straight game, the Denver Nuggets trudged off the court, scowls on their faces, dejection in their gait -- only this time they won.
"I was angry," explained Chauncey Billups, who scored a season-best 33 points for Denver, which escaped with a 110-109 win over the depleted Atlanta Hawks when Flip Murray's 14-footer bounced off the rim at the buzzer Wednesday night.
"I'm happy that we won," Billups said, "but I'm just disappointed in how we won."
Thanks to a 19-0 run spanning halftime, the Nuggets surged to a 17-point lead in the third quarter over a Hawks team missing two starters only to watch their lead dwindle in the fourth quarter.
They were up 110-102 with 90 seconds left when Joe Johnson hit a 3-pointer and two free throws sandwiched around Billups' turnover. After Chris Andersen's inbounds pass was stolen by Maurice Evans, Al Horford's jumper made it a one-point game with 33 seconds left.
Billups worked the clock down before missing an 18-footer with 6.9 seconds left, giving the Hawks a shot at the upset.
But Murray's potential winner clanked off the iron and he fell to the court as the Nuggets breathed a huge sigh of relief and snapped a three-game skid.
Off they plodded to the locker room, in no mood to celebrate.
"When you lose three games in a row, any kind of win is great," Billups said. "But I think the disappointment that we have in the way that we finished the game is just a sign of how good of a team that we are: We're happy with the win, but we're not happy with how we finished the game."
Neither was Murray.
"It was a shot I should have made," Murray insisted. "I had a chance to win the game with my last shot and I short-armed it. But it was a shot I should have made. Other than that it was a good game."
The way he stayed on the court while the Nuggets walked over and around him showed his level of disgust in himself.
"It was wide open I should have made it," Murray said. "It was an easy little chipper and I should have made it."
Carmelo Anthony couldn't believe the Nuggets escaped with the win.
"That last shot, my eyes were big, my heart was beating," he said. "He missed."
A loss to Atlanta's "B" team with the West-leading Los Angeles Lakers on tap Friday night could have been devastating for the Nuggets, who are clinging to their Northwest Division lead with Anthony (knee) ailing, center Nene (knee) out and forward Kenyon Martin fighting through back spasms.
How would they have felt had Murray's shot gone in?
"I don't even want to talk about that because he missed and we move on to Friday," Billups said. "It don't matter."
The Hawks were without starters Mike Bibby (flu) and Josh Smith (family matter). Bibby was replaced by Murray, who scored 15 points, at point guard, and forward Zaza Pachulia (nine points) took Smith's place in the lineup.
Marvin Williams led Atlanta with a season-best 31 points, Johnson had 26 and Horford 21 points and 11 boards.
Billups shook off his season-low three-point performance in Denver's 38-point loss to the Boston Celtics on Monday night, his worst game since joining the Nuggets in the on Nov. 3 in the trade that sent Allen Iverson to Detroit.
'Melo also bounced back from a sub-par performance against the defending champs, hitting all sorts of highlight shots in a 23-point night.
The Nuggets were without Nene for the second straight game, and they missed their big man as much as, if not more, than the Hawks missed Bibby and Smith, who average 15.8 and 15.3 points respectively.
Without their big Brazilian patrolling the paint and shooting his high-percentage shots, the Nuggets started Johan Petro again and rotated a mixture of Andersen, Linas Kleiza and J.R. Smith to counter Atlanta's makeshift, albeit big and athletic lineup.
"It's a win, and tomorrow morning when we wake up it will feel like a win," Nuggets coach George Karl said.
Even if it didn't feel that way Wednesday night.
Nene also missed the Nuggets' other game against Atlanta this season, sitting out Denver's 109-91 loss at Phillips Arena on Dec. 29 because of a neck injury. ... The Hawks finished 2-4 on their Western trip.
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