The Denver Nuggets are getting good at bittersweet moments.
Andre Iguodala scored 28 points and the Nuggets set an NBA franchise record with their 55th win Sunday, beating the short-handed Portland Trail Blazers 118-109 but losing another starter.
On the day Ty Lawson (right heel) returned to Denver’s starting lineup for the first time since March 27 and played an encouraging 31 minutes, forward Kenneth Faried sprained his left ankle in the opening minutes while driving for a layup and didn’t return.
”We’re dropping like flies, man,” Lawson said. ”Well, it’s not too serious, I heard, so he might be out for a week or so. He’s a tough guy.”
Although X-rays were negative, coach George Karl stressed that he didn’t want to guess about Faried’s availability for the playoffs that start next weekend until after his top rebounder goes for an MRI on Monday.
The Nuggets tweeted this quote from Faried two hours after the game: ”Extremely scared. I never felt a pain like that a day in my life.” He also said he’d be ready for the playoffs: ”I know I will be out there. If I can walk, I can play.”
Faried crumpled to the floor, covering his face and holding his left ankle as the Nuggets called a timeout less than three minutes into the game. The Pepsi Center crowd grew quiet – the way it had 10 days earlier when forward Danilo Gallinari blew out his left ACL driving to the same hoop against Dallas.
In an all-too-familiar sight, Quincy Miller and Anthony Randolph helped their teammate as he gingerly walked off the court, a towel covering his face. Randolph would get some of Faried’s minutes and finish with 18 points.
Faried was averaging 11.7 points and a team-best 9.3 rebounds.
”I felt like we were snakebit or bad luck had come our way, our karma had turned the wrong way,” Karl said. ”I kind of saw it and then when he stayed down, I was worried. I don’t think anything’s broken. But we’ll find out much more tomorrow.”
As they did when Gallinari went down, the Nuggets rallied behind their latest fallen starter, and grabbed a piece of history with their 55th win.
The Nuggets, who went 54-28 in both 1987-88 and 2008-09, also extended their franchise-best winning streak at home to 22 straight games but more importantly they moved a game ahead of the Clippers and Grizzlies in the race for the third seed in the Western Conference.
The Nuggets (55-25) can clinch home-court advantage in the first round with a win at Milwaukee on Monday night or a victory over Phoenix at home on Wednesday night.
”It’s a `wow’ year for me,” Karl said. ”I’ve had a few before. I haven’t had one since I was in Seattle, though. I’ve had the privilege to be on teams that won 60 a couple of times. That’s pretty good. Fifty-five is the next-best thing.
”I do idealistic and realistic predictions and I thought the most we could squeeze out this year was 54, so we’re above and beyond. I admire how much guys have stayed in this season and fought through some tough moments and continue to improve. So, it’s a pretty special year.”
Karl was thrilled at Lawson’s return to the starting lineup. He had 12 points and 10 assists less than 48 hours after playing 20 minutes at Dallas.
”I don’t think I could have asked for a better script out of Ty these last two games,” Karl said.
Lawson said he’s completely confident in his right heel now.
”Oh yeah, I think so. I pushed off it actually today going to the basket a couple of times, so I think I’m confident and just probably one or two more games I’ll be back to regular,” he said.
Iguodala also grabbed seven rebounds, dished out nine assists, blocked three shots and had three steals to go with his 28 points, marking the first time in his career he’d posted those numbers in a game.
And rookie Evan Fournier scored 24 points in his second career start, sinking a pair of crucial 3-pointers in the closing minutes after the Trail Blazers had cut a 20-point deficit to 104-101 with 3:33 left.
Portland was without three starters: LaMarcus Aldridge (right ankle), Wesley Matthews (right ankle) and Nicolas Batum (right shoulder), so coach Terry Stotts started four rookies, including Damian Lillard, who led the Trail Blazers with 30 points but also had eight of their 23 turnovers as Portland lost its 11th straight.
After Denver built a seemingly safe 83-63 lead, the Blazers made a game of it. J.J. Hickson’s free throw with 3:33 left made it 104-101, but that was as close as it got. It was 106-102 when Lawson sank two free throws and Fournier swished a 3-pointer from the left corner to give Denver some breathing room. Fournier’s 3-pointer from the other side made it 118-107, and their 55th win was secure.
”Ty Lawson just made some plays that we didn’t have answers for,” Stotts said. ”But we played much better in the second half.”
Karl would have preferred a blowout but said the tight game might pay dividends down the road, especially with so many backups playing key roles down the stretch.
With Gallinari done for the season and uncertainty surrounding Faried, the Nuggets’ hopes of a strong playoff run will depend on what they get out of their deep lineup.
”It’s a really good team,” Iguodala said. ”And it’s been a really good year for us. But we don’t want to get satisfied. We’ve still got work to do. We can’t just settle for 55. We’ve got to try to get to 57.”
With 55 wins, Lawson said this team has to be considered among the best in franchise history, ”so hopefully it translates to the playoffs and we try to do what no Nuggets have ever done.”
Win it all.
Notes: By improving to an NBA-best 37-3 at home, they also set a record Sunday for most home wins in a season since joining the NBA 37 years ago. Denver went 36-5 at home under Larry Brown in 1976-77. … Portland has lost nine straight and 23 of its last 25 games in Denver.