DENVER, Dec. 31 (Ticker) -- With the San Antonio Spurs' starting backcourt enduring an off-night, Manu Ginobili showed he may be all the way back by shining off the bench.

Ginobili scored 18 of his 20 points through the first three quarters and had a season-high eight assists in just 24 minutes to lead the Spurs to a 98-88 victory over the Denver Nuggets.

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Making his third appearance since an eight-game layoff to nurse a sprained foot, Ginobili had his best effort in weeks. He made up for a slow offensive effort from Tony Parker and Michael Finley, who combined for 20 points, before stepping up defensively in the fourth.

"We finished the game very strong," said Ginobili, who drew two offensive fouls and had the last of his four steals in the closing minutes. "We were playing good defense and sharing the ball. So we got to be very proud of this win."

"Ginobili played a good game," Nuggets coach George Karl said. "It's his best game since he's been back. San Antonio is a brilliant team. When they sense your weakness, they have a way of getting stronger. As the game went on, they got stronger and we got weaker."

Ginobili had half of the Spurs' 18 points in the first quarter and scored six more in the third, when San Antonio turned a four-point halftime deficit into a 69-61 lead entering the fourth.

"I think we were in pretty good shape at halftime," Ginobili said. "We were not worried. We made too many mistakes. We knew if we made adjustments, we would be in pretty good shape."

He had a three-point play to pull his club within 55-54 midway through the third and assisted on Tim Duncan's layup moments later that put the Spurs on top. San Antonio never trailed thereafter and took the lead for good when Ginobili found Finley for a dunk and a 59-57 lead with 4:31 to go in the third.

Robert Horry made back-to-back 3-pointers near the end of the quarter to help San Antonio open its largest lead, 69-59. It matched that margin in the fourth, when Finley buried a jumper for an 80-70 lead midway through the period.

"Horry hit some shots and gave us the lead, and we went from there," Duncan said. "In the fourth period, we executed our defense better and shored it up."

After the Nuggets got within 80-75 on Carmelo Anthony's three-point play with 6:09 left, Duncan - who scored 19 of his 25 points in the second half - made two free throws to start a 10-5 burst.

Duncan made all nine of his free throws, including five in the final 5:31, as the Spurs won their third straight.

"Duncan is Duncan," Karl said. "Anytime you can walk off the court and Duncan has six points at halftime, you know he's going to get a lot more involvement. I can't say we did a poor job on Duncan, but he took control of the game and their defense took control of the game."

San Antonio held the Nuggets to 34 percent (26-of-76) shooting as Denver fell to 0-3 on its six-game homestand.

"We are frustrated and tired of losing," said Kenyon Martin, who had 11 points and 12 rebounds. "We thought this was a time to get well with six straight home games."

Anthony scored 25 points and had eight boards for the Nuggets, who claimed a 49-39 rebounding advantage.

"Mentally, we're fragile right now, and I thought that showed," Karl said. "If we rebound and defend with the attitude we had tonight against some of the weaker teams, I think we'll have a chance to get out of this funk and get moving in a good direction."

Finley scored five of his 14 points in the fourth to finish with a respectable total, but Parker failed to reach double figures for the first time this season, collecting six points on 3-of-9 shooting.