DENVER - In Chauncey We Trust.

Those were the words of Denver's J.R. Smith last night after the Nuggets won a game they shouldn't have won, beating the 76ers, 105-101, in front of a sold-out crowd at the Pepsi Center.

The Sixers led by 17 midway through the third quarter.

"We played well enough to win," Sixers swingman Andre Iguodala said. "We just didn't."

In Chauncey Billups the Nuggets should trust: He scored 26 points, including a pull-up jumper with 27.8 seconds remaining that gave his team a one-point lead.

Then a bounce pass out of an aggressive double-team led to Kenyon Martin's dunking the eventual winning points.

After Martin's dunk, with nine seconds left, the Sixers put the ball into the hands of Iguodala, who scored a team-high 24 points. Iguodala drove into the lane, dragged his pivot foot, and was called for traveling.

It was this whistle that essentially ended the Sixers' chances.

But a technical foul on Sixers point guard Andre Miller, called because he obstructed the ensuing free throws, made it a two-possession game with 2.9 seconds to play.

"I didn't do nothing, I didn't say nothing," said Miller, who scored 19 points.

"I was just trying to stall the free throw. Maybe it was a stupid move. I might have deserved a delay-of-game, but not a tech. Guys do that all the time."

The Sixers dropped to 12-17 and 3-3 under new coach Tony DiLeo. The Nuggets improved to 19-11.

The loss came at the front end of what on paper appears to be a one-win trip: After the Nuggets, the Sixers play the Utah Jazz (18-13), Los Angeles Clippers (8-20), Dallas Mavericks (17-12), and San Antonio Spurs (19-10).

The end-of-game scramble overshadowed what might have been the Sixers' best performance of the season.

The Sixers knew, with Nuggets star forward Carmelo Anthony watching from the sideline because of a sore elbow, they had an opportunity to start their five-game road swing with an unlikely victory.

Anthony watched; the Sixers played.

Without Anthony's 20.5 points and 7.4 rebounds a game, the Nuggets were missing their main scoring option.

And the Sixers, who were 0 for their last 19 from the three-point line, shot 5 for 12.

Combining that efficiency with their steady running game - 18 fastbreak points - the Sixers had built a lead of 15 points midway through the third quarter.

"Coming in and playing against a good Denver team, we had a double-digit lead," DiLeo said. "We took a step in the right direction."

With 4 minutes, 10 seconds remaining in the third quarter, Iguodala (24 points) stole the ball, put his head down, dribbled the length of the court, and dunked over the Nuggets' lone defender. Those two points pushed the Sixers' lead to 17, and as Billups caught the subsequent inbounds pass, the Pepsi Center crowd booed its usually competitive team.

That they weren't the team being booed seemed an uncommon situation for the Sixers.

Their poor free-throw shooting - 18 for 30 - prevented them from breaking open the game.

"If we could have shot a little better from the line, it would have been a different game," DiLeo said.

Guard J.R. Smith started in place of Anthony.

He scored 19 points in the first half and finished with a team-high 27.

But even with Smith hitting in place of Anthony, this Sixers loss felt like a missed opportunity.

Kind of like missing a free throw.

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Contact staff writer Kate Fagan at 856-779-3844 or kfagan@phillynews.com.