DENVER (AP)– Once the Denver Nuggets started making stops and running the Houston Rockets ragged, it seemed nothing went wrong for them.
A telling sequence came at the start of the fourth quarter when JaVale McGee blocked Chase Budinger‘s shot, Arron Afflalo saved the ball in front of the Nuggets’ bench to Andre Miller, who took one step and threw a three-quarter court alley-oop pass to Corey Brewer for a slam dunk.
That put an exclamation on the Nuggets’ 101-86 win Sunday night in the opener of a crucial home-and-home set between playoff hopefuls.
“He’s a pretty amazing dude, where he throws the ball, I don’t think many people in basketball ever think about doing that,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. “And to throw it as far as he throws it on the mark, it’s pretty amazing to me.”
“He’s the best,” Brewer concurred. “If you run, Andre’s going to get you the ball in the perfect position. All you have to do is go up and dunk. Just like a wide receiver, you just run out there and lay it up.”
Or slam it down.
The Nuggets did plenty of both in the second half as they erased a 49-43 halftime deficit thanks to a 37-19 third-quarter spurt.
Afflalo scored 18 of his 20 points in the second half and Ty Lawson also scored 20 with Brewer chipping in 14 points, most on fast breaks that changed the tenor of this game.
The teams play again in Houston on Monday night, and now the pressure is squarely on the Rockets, who have lost three straight and saw their four-game road winning streak snapped.
“They’re going to play with an anger and an urgency that their season is in trouble in they lose tomorrow,” Karl said. “For us, it’s our chance to continue to figure out how to play big-time basketball games and be mature about it and we’ll be able to probably adjust some things ourselves.”
The teams are clinging to the final two playoff spots in the West, trying to fend off fast-charging Phoenix and Utah.
With the their season-best fifth straight home win, the Nuggets took sole possession of seventh place in the Western Conference, a-half game behind Dallas, which lost in overtime to the Los Angeles Lakers earlier Sunday.
Budinger and Luis Scola each scored 19 to lead the Rockets, who lost to the Suns and Jazz at home in the last week.
The Nuggets opened the fourth quarter with the amazing play in which Miller threw the ball three-quarters of the court for Brewer’s slam, one of his season-high 11 assists.
The Nuggets outscored Houston 29-10 on the fastbreak, including 17-3 in the second half, when Houston shot just 32 percent to Denver’s 54.
“They `fastbroke’ on us off our missed shots. Long rebounds, turnovers and they ran out in that third quarter,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale lamented. “It’s the same kind of bugaboo, and you just have to get over it.”
They’ve got less than 24 hours.
“We’ve got to go out and play better tomorrow night,” McHale said. “They had 26 points off our turnovers, but it’s more than that. When the clock ran down, they turned their defense up a little bit. They got some deflections that they ran out. We had some shots. We missed some shots and it affects us too much.”
Budinger said the Rockets know exactly what has to change for them to reverse both team’s fortunes Monday night.
“We just need to get back,” Budinger said. “This was a good learning lesson for us just because they got so many fastbreak points on us. Coming into tomorrow, we’re going to play them again, just knowing how fast they like to play how quick they get the ball up, our ones, twos and threes have to get back and stop their transition because that’s where they really killed us tonight.”
The key to all those transition buckets was Brewer.
“It’s kind of my job on this team – energy. Basically when I come in games, it’s pick up the pace and start picking up the ball,” he said “Our defense makes our offense better. When we start playing good defense offense becomes easy because we can score a lot of points.”
Karl said his team had to treat its final seven games like a playoff series, suggesting they had to win four games at minimum to reach the playoffs for a ninth consecutive season. All but one of their remaining opponents are playoff-caliber teams.
The Rockets, who last made the playoffs in 2009, have a rough road to the postseason themselves. After their back-to-backs against Denver, they play at Dallas, and they’ve lost six straight to the Mavericks.
Not much went right for the Rockets in the second half Sunday night. Guard Courtney Lee missed a dunk in the third quarter, leading to a 3-pointer by Afflalo at the other end that capped a 14-4 run to open the second half and put Denver ahead 59-53.
Lawson disputed the notion it’s inherently hard to beat the same team on back-to-back nights.
“I don’t think it’s that tough,” he said. “And if we just stay focused and stay in the game play, it will be easy for us.”
NOTES: Rockets C Marcus Camby, who has been playing through torn ligaments in his left wrist, played eight minutes before leaving with a sore back. He had no points, one rebound and two assists. … Wilson Chandler returned to the court for Denver after missing eight games with hip and groin injuries. He didn’t score in seven minutes of action.
By ARNIE STAPLETON, AP Pro Football Writer
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