HOUSTON (AP) – The Denver Nuggets are already in playoff mode, even though they’re still fighting for a postseason berth.

Arron Afflalo scored 26 points, Ty Lawson had 25 and the Nuggets continued their push up the standings with a 105-102 victory over the fading Houston Rockets on Monday night.

Al Harrington added 15 points and Andre Miller had 13 assists for the Nuggets, who swept back-to-back games with the Rockets, the team that was directly behind them in the Western Conference.

“Our awareness of where we are in the season is really starting to heighten now,” said Afflalo, who went 10 for 16 from the field. “Before, we used to go out there and compete and play the games. Now, we have an ulterior motive almost, in terms of understanding playoff positioning. That’s good for a young team.”

Denver began the night holding the No. 7 spot in the West, one game ahead of the Rockets. The Nuggets have won four of their last five, and snapped a three-game road losing streak.

“We had opportunities to give up on the game and we didn’t do it,” Denver coach George Karl said. “It’s a huge win for us.”

Houston, meanwhile, was only one game ahead of Phoenix and 1 1/2 games ahead of Utah, who were both playing later Monday.

142956717 Afflalo, Lawson Lead Nuggets To Key Win In Houston

JaVale McGee #34 of the Denver Nuggets dunks against the Houston Rockets on April 15, 2012 at the Pepsi Center. (Photo by Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)

Goran Dragic and Chandler Parsons scored 21 points apiece for the Rockets, who have dropped four straight after a four-game road winning streak.

“We were right there,” Dragic said. “We knew we had to get that game if we want to win a tiebreaker against Denver. We cannot think backwards, we have to think forward.”

The Rockets play at Dallas on Wednesday night, a virtual must-win game if they want to keep their playoff hopes alive.

“We were sitting good a few games ago, and now we’re not sitting so good,” Houston coach Kevin McHale said. “We’ve just got to go in and take care of ourselves.”

Denver led 75-74 after three quarters, and the fourth was tight all the way to the end.

The Nuggets took a 99-98 lead into the final 2 minutes, and Afflalo found Harrington with a wraparound pass for an easy layup with 1:19 left to make it 101-98. Parsons rattled in a jumper from the free-throw line, but with all the Nuggets standing on the sideline, Lawson hit a 3-pointer from the corner with 45 seconds left to silence the noisy crowd.

“We could’ve easily come in here and settled (for a loss),” Miller said. “It definitely showed some character, coming in here (and winning), especially against a team that’s fighting for a playoff spot.”

Patrick Patterson hit a short jumper, and Luis Scola had a chance to tie it, but his runner in the lane rattled out with 6 seconds left. Afflalo, a 79 percent free-throw shooter, split two free throws with 3.9 seconds remaining, giving the Rockets a chance to tie it.

But Parsons’ desperation 3-pointer hit off the front of the rim, and Denver sent Houston to its fourth straight home loss, a season high.

“We can’t afford to play like this,” Parsons said. “We’re letting it slip away.”

Corey Brewer scored all 11 of his points in the fourth quarter, and the Nuggets finished 9 for 18 from 3-point range to win in Houston for the first time since October 2010.

“We just played hard to the end,” Brewer said, “and we were able to get one.”

Houston shot well at the start, led by as many as 11 in the first half and was up 51-44 at halftime.

The Nuggets made 9 of their first 14 shots out of the break. Harrington made two 3s, and Afflalo scored in the lane to put Denver up 67-66. Courtney Lee swept in for a layup, and Houston moved back in front with 3:49 left in the quarter.

The teams swapped the lead five more times in the quarter, and Denver took a one-point lead to the final 12 minutes. The lead changed hands 16 times in all before the Nuggets finally put it away.

“Our mental toughness was pretty good,” Afflalo said. “They gave us some tough hits. Every time we fought back, they would make plays.”

Notes: Rockets C Samuel Dalembert started for Camby and blocked seven shots, a season high. … Scola had 14 points and 13 rebounds for his 100th career double-double. … The Rockets went 8 for 29 from 3-point range (28 percent). … Houston matched its season-high scoring total in a first quarter (32). … Miller had at least 10 assists for the 15th time this season. … The Nuggets have rallied from double-digit deficits to win 10 games this season. … Karl is guaranteed to finish with a winning record for the 20th straight season.

By CHRIS DUNCAN, AP Sports Writer

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


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