DENVER — Cody Zeller fueled the fast start that Charlotte used to finish off the struggling Denver Nuggets.
Zeller scored a career-best 21 points, including 14 in the first quarter, and Charlotte went on to rout Denver 104-86 on Saturday night.
"I got a lot of easy ones off of transition," said Zeller, who had several uncontested dunks early when the Nuggets failed to hustle back on defense. "We wanted to come out early, because they haven't won recently, and not give them any hope. "
Al Jefferson and Jason Maxiell added 14 points apiece for the Hornets, who have won 10 of their last 13 games.
They have held their opponents to under 100 points in 12 of those games. And their solid play has continued in the absence of Kemba Walker, who underwent surgery Wednesday to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee and will be out at least six weeks.
"The defense has really picked up in the last month and that's why we're winning," Zeller said. "Al's playing well right now, a lot of guys have stepped up with Kemba out. Hopefully we can keep this going."
Danilo Gallinari's 15 points led the Nuggets, who were dealt a blow before the game. Star forward Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur, a key reserve, were both held out because of illness.
"We missed 'em tonight," said the Nuggets' Ty Lawson.
But he conceded the team's problems go much deeper.
"You can't put your finger on one thing," Lawson said. "There's so many things that need to be corrected. It's tough. It's tough right now. We're consistently inconsistent. I feel sorry for the fans. We shouldn't play like that in front of them."
The Hornets ran circles around the Nuggets who were on the floor.
"We got a break with no Faried and Arthur but I liked our readiness," Hornets coach Steve Clifford said. "In the first half we were on top of things."
Charlotte began pulling away with a 12-0 burst in the last 3:05 of the first quarter. Zeller had six points in the stretch including a pair of dunks.
By halftime, the Hornets had opened a 32-point lead. The Nuggets lost for the ninth time in 10 games, and it was Denver's fourth loss in a row to the Hornets, who swept the season series for a second year in a row.
In one second-quarter stretch, Charlotte scored 14 unanswered points and closed the last 2:29 with a 10-4 flurry that included an alley-oop dunk by Kidd-Gilchrist off a lob from Gary Neal. One of Denver's 12 turnovers ignited the flashy fast break, and moments later, the crowd showered the Nuggets with boos as they trudged into the locker room at the break.
"Not really a whole lot to say other than we're not very good right now. Down 32 in the first half to this team, at home, is not acceptable," Nuggets coach Brian Shaw said. "I have to do a better job, everybody else has to do a better job."
Hornets: Marvin Williams was ruled out for a second straight game because of a concussion. ... The Hornets beat a Western Conference team on the road for only the second time in 10 games this season. ... Zeller's previous scoring high was 20 points against Boston on Jan. 5.
Nuggets: JaVale McGee is gradually working his way back into form from the lower leg strain that sidelined him for seven weeks. In his second game back, he shook off a missed dunk to start the night and finished with eight points in just under 16 minutes of play. ... The Nuggets' 30-point first half wasn't their worst this season, but it was close. They were held to 28 first-half points two weeks ago by Golden State.
Hornets: At Washington on Monday.
Nuggets: At Philadelphia on Tuesday.