DENVER — The Denver Nuggets did just fine without Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups to finish off the regular season, hardly missing the All-Star duo in the wake of their blockbuster deal with the New York Knicks.
They sure could've used them in the playoffs, though.
The Nuggets lacked a go-to guy such as Anthony in crunch time and they sorely missed Billups' trustworthy free throw shooting.
They watched as another elite scorer, Kevin Durant, took over in Game 5 — for most of the series, really — and carried the Oklahoma City Thunder to a 100-97 win Wednesday night, scoring 41 points to send the Nuggets to another first-round exit.
The Nuggets looked almost unsure of what to do in the waning moments Wednesday, Arron Afflalo finally launching an off-balance shot that bounded harmlessly off the rim at the buzzer.
Such big moments were usually reserved for Anthony over the last seven-plus seasons.
Denver can also pin its early exodus on streaky free throw shooting, hitting just 71 percent in the series where they lost twice by three points.
And that was Billups' forte, a nearly 90 percent shooter at the line in the playoffs over his career. He also was painfully missed by his new team as the Knicks were swept by Boston with Billups sitting out the final three games with a strained left knee.
Nonetheless, the Nuggets are in far better shape heading into the offseason than they would have been had they held onto Anthony and then lost him in free agency without compensation like the Cleveland Cavaliers did when LeBron James bolted to Miami last summer.
The swap set the foundation for the future, with the Nuggets acquiring forwards Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari, guard Raymond Felton and centers Timofey Mozgov and Kosta Koufos (from Minnesota).
The team bonded immediately, going 18-7 with coach George Karl employing a heavy dose of the pick and roll and rotating fresh bodies from a roster that suddenly lacked egos and was hard for opponents to decode.
The Nuggets post-Melo were dramatically better on defense, too, and despite their early exit, Karl, who signed a three-year extension this spring, was enthusiastic about the future.
"I don't know what adjective you'd use to describe this season — scary, amazing, crazy," Karl said Thursday as players scattered for an uncertain offseason. "It had so many different personalities from injuries to trades to gossip, innuendo. There seemed to be so many different things you had to persevere through physically and mentally.
"Not many teams would've made it through this year."
Karl had to adjust on the fly, especially with a string of late injuries, including Afflalo's balky left hamstring that sidelined him for the first two games of the playoffs.
Then again, nothing came all that easy for Karl and the Nuggets this season.
In his return from throat cancer, Karl was thrown into a chaotic situation, a cloud constantly hanging over the team as new executives Josh Kroenke and Masai Ujiri tried to pull the strings on a deal for Anthony.
After nearly six months, the Nuggets reinvented themselves.
"There was good chemistry, which is something you hope for with a big trade like that," Ujiri said. "It's about building a winning culture. And I can happily say that we're a little bit on our way to getting there."
Whenever the Nuggets reconvene — labor strife looms for the NBA — they'll have a strong nucleus but must make tough decisions on several players, including streaky 3-point shooter J.R. Smith and bruiser Kenyon Martin.
After a bad game in the playoffs, Smith suggested he would sign with another team this summer but later backed off, saying he was just expressing frustration over a benching in a Game 2 blowout.
On Thursday, he sounded as though it was up to the Nuggets to bring him back and welcomed a return.
"Been voicing that since Day 1," Smith said. "I've always wanted to be here, always wanted to play here. Just a matter of people wanting me to be here."
Martin gave the Nuggets an inside toughness and meanness — when he was able to play. Plagued by balky knees throughout his seven seasons in Denver, Martin missed the first 26 games this season as he recovered from yet another operation, then finished strong, taking on a leadership role following Anthony's departure.
Chandler and Afflalo are restricted free agents and center Nene could opt out of the final year of his deal.
"I have no problem with basically the crew we have coming back and seeing what we could do in the last 25 games of the year, see if we could do that over 82 games," Karl said.
Notes: Karl said he was awakened at 7 a.m. Thursday by a police officer serving him with a summons for a pending court case involving a robbery at a building he owns in Wisconsin. He said he has to appear June 21. ... Karl said he would like to use both diminutive guards Ty Lawson and Felton together in the backcourt again in 2011-12. "I still think that is one of our most powerful weapons," he said.