DENVER(AP) Ideally, the Denver Nuggets wanted to jump on the Oklahoma City Thunder early and coast to a win before flying out to Los Angeles for their showdown with the Lakers.
Instead, they had to fight like crazy before coming up big in the fourth quarter for a 122-112 win Wednesday night thanks to the usual stars - Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups - and an unusually good finish by Linas Kleiza.
"It's a win, baby!'' coach George Karl bellowed out as his players got dressed.
Indeed, it was their eighth straight victory and their ninth in a row at the Pepsi Center. It put them 27 games above .500 for the first time in their 33-year NBA history.
And now the Nuggets are on the cusp of two very big achievements: the Northwest Division crown and the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs, which would give them home-court advantage in the postseason for the first time in 21 years.
They could land the one-two punch with a win Thursday night in Los Angeles, where the Lakers long ago clinched the top seed but are still trying to surpass Cleveland for the NBA's best overall record, and a loss by Houston at Sacramento on Thursday night.
It'll be tough for the Nuggets to win at the Staples Center on the second night of a back-to-back.
"Hey man, that's the NBA,'' Billups said. "Tough building. One of the best teams in the NBA. And we have an opportunity to do something special. So, it's exciting.''
The Nuggets aren't looking at this game as a barometer, however.
"We already know who we are,'' Billups said. "This is not going to make or break our season in any fashion.
"If we want to achieve our ultimate goal, we're going to have to see that team somewhere and we're going to have to get through that team somehow.''
Karl said the Nuggets have a "free swing'' on the Lakers: Win and it's a big boost. Lose and it's not the end of the world.
"I think we've made a lot of statements this year,'' Anthony concurred. "We've proved to teams that we are legit. This is another game on our schedule. It's a big game, but it's another game.''
Ah, but what a win that would be.
"It would be huge, man, especially at this time of the year and for what we're trying to accomplish,'' Anthony said. "That would be a big win for us.''
Anthony scored 31 points against the Thunder, Nene added 23, Billups chipped in 18, including every one in an 11-2 spurt the Nuggets used to finally get control of the game. Kleiza scored 12 of his 17 in the fourth quarter and Chris Andersen blocked seven shots.
The Nuggets needed every bit of that effort to stave off the Thunder, who were led by Kevin Durant's 31 points and Jeff Green's 24.
"I don't really think it was a wake-up call,'' Anthony said. "We won the game tonight. We did what we had to do. Tomorrow's going to be a fun game.''
With Portland winning at San Antonio for the first time since 2002 earlier in the night, the Nuggets (53-26) weren't able to clinch the Northwest Division crown. But they did pad their cushion for the West's second seed. They're now 2 1/2 games ahead of the Spurs, Trail Blazers and Rockets, all of whom are 50-28.
Denver needs to win two more games to break the franchise record - 54 set in 1987-88.
Oklahoma City is 21-57, but the Thunder took the Nuggets down to the wire three times in their four losses to Denver this season. Twice, Anthony had to hit the game-winning shot in the final seconds.
And this one wasn't easy, either.
The Nuggets, missing Kenyon Martin (ribs) for the third straight game, didn't lead by more than four until Billups sank a pair of free throws with a minute left in the third quarter for an 85-79 lead. Billups then added a fadeaway jumper for an eight-point cushion.
Green's 27-footer swished at the buzzer, pulling the Thunder to 89-84 heading into the fourth quarter, and this game was too close for the Nuggets' comfort until the end.
"We had a couple heartbreakers and we played them tough here, too,'' Durant said. "They're a great team, a team that could be in the championship this year easily. So it does give us a lot of confidence.''
Notes: Anthony banged his right elbow with teammate J.R. Smith going for a rebound and had it iced afterward. He said he doubted it was anything serious. "I'll tell you what, I'm going to be suited up tomorrow,'' he declared. ... The Nuggets swept the season series for just the second time against this franchise and for the first time since they swept the Sonics in 1976-77. ... Karl said he'll likely keep Martin out against the Lakers.