Now that the Denver Nuggets are in the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season, there will be no letting up for the final three games of the regular season.
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Coach George Karl wants his young team to gain some momentum, and there’s still a chance to pass Dallas for the No. 6 spot in the Western Conference.
Ty Lawson went 5 of 5 on three-pointers and had 29 points and 10 assists to lead Denver to the playoff-clinching 118-107 victory over the Phoenix Suns on Saturday.
Denver pulled within a half-game of Dallas, which played at Chicago on Saturday night and holds the tiebreaker over Denver.
”We have three games left and we are going to try to win all three of them. There won’t be any rest going on here,” Karl said. ”We are not in that mode. We are into getting better and coming together. It is a young team that will have to learn how to win in the playoffs. On the job training, but it has been done before.”
The Suns fell a half-game behind Utah for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Jazz played at home against Orlando on Saturday night. Phoenix plays at Utah on Tuesday and holds the tiebreaker over the Jazz.
”We got to go into Utah — tough environment, tough atmosphere, tough team — and we got to win,” said the Suns’ Shannon Brown, who scored 28 points, including a career-best six threes in 12 attempts. ”That’s basically what it comes down to.”
Steve Nash of the Suns had 13 assists, nine in the first quarter, to pass Oscar Robertson into fifth place on the NBA’s career list. The Suns lost Channing Frye to a shoulder injury in the second quarter.
The Nuggets beat the Suns for the sixth straight time, three this season.
”They’ve got size, they got strength, they got a lot of skill, they can shoot the ball,” Nash said. ”You know, they’ve got a really good team, a really deep team, so they’ve been causing a lot of problems for us and we haven’t been able to beat them.”
Arron Afflalo scored 19 points and Kenneth Faried had 16 for the Nuggets, who had six players finish in double figures, shot 55 percent from the field and had a 26-2 advantage on fastbreak points.
Lawson noted that the Suns, like so many other teams, passed on him in the 2009 draft. Phoenix chose Earl Clark at No. 14. Lawson finally went at No. 18 to Minnesota.
”I mean, that is probably the only added motivation I have,” Lawson said. ”It has nothing against Steve. He is definitely one of my idols, so you always want to see how good you are against your idols.”
Marcin Gortat had 18 points and 11 rebounds for Phoenix.
Denver used a third-period outburst to build a 21-point lead. The Suns cut it to 10 in the fourth quarter, but could get no closer.
Nash passed Robertson with his fourth assist, on a three-pointer by Frye just 4:22 into the game. The two-time MVP had assists on five of Phoenix’s first six field goals and finished the first quarter with nine.
After a tight first half, the Nuggets outscored Phoenix 33-14 to start the third quarter, going up 93-72 on Al Harrington’s fastbreak dunk with 2:31 left in the period. The Suns, though, scored the final eight points of the quarter to cut it to 93-80 entering the fourth. The closest the Suns got after that was 105-95 on Brown’s three with 4:42 left. Lawson and Andre Miller followed with layups and Phoenix didn’t threaten again.
”We could never get them under control at the start of the third quarter,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. ”They got a couple of easy layups and we struggled to slow them down from there.”
Lawson scored 11 points in the third quarter, making 4 of 6 shots, including all three three-point attempts.
The Nuggets led 60-58 after a first half that saw neither team lead by more than six points. Denver shot 59.5 percent in the first half, led by Lawson’s 7 for 9 for 16 points. The Suns shot 54 percent in the first half, with Gortat going 6 for 9 for 14 points.
Frye sustained a subluxed right shoulder when he went up for a rebound with 4:33 left in the first half. The Suns’ starting power forward, who leads the team with 91 three-pointers, missed nearly two weeks after dislocating the same shoulder late last season.
NOTES: Nash, with 9,897 assists, trails only Magic Johnson (10,141), Mark Jackson (10,334), Jason Kidd (11,830 and counting) and John Stockton (15,806). … The Nuggets won the season series 3-0. … The Suns’ Robin Lopez, ejected for a flagrant-2 foul in the victory over the Clippers on Thursday, drew a technical from referee Rodney Mott with 6:09 left in the first half.