Fourth quarter becomes Miller time in key Nuggets victory
Before the second half of the biggest game of the season, Nuggets guard Andre Miller shared a few friendly words with two young men sitting courtside.
His subsequent toughness and clutch play undoubtedly made an impression on Colorado Avalanche forwards David Jones and Paul Stastny – not to mention his own Denver teammates..
Miller, still playing through the pain of a separated right shoulder, scored 13 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter to help the Nuggets get an important 105-99 victory over the Phoenix Suns in front of a sold-out crowd at Pepsi Center on Friday night.
“Andre Miller kind of has this thing that when April comes around, men come to play,” Denver coach George Karl said. “He had a pretty special night. I give this one to Andre.”
The Nuggets (30-25) moved within a half-game of the Dallas Mavericks (31-25) for the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference and kept pace with the fifth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies (31-23) in a tightly packed playoff race.
“Every game is a playoff game,” said Miller, who finished with seven rebounds and seven assists. “It’s so tight, we have to figure out how to stay in the race.”
The Suns (28-27) entered the night with a three-game winning streak and in ninth place in the West, just a game behind Denver.
Phoenix looked poised to pull even with the Nuggets in the standings, taking a 97-92 lead with 5:08 to go, but Denver closed the game on a 13-2 run. Miller had a hand in all 13 points, scoring eight and assisting on two other field goals.
“Andre kind of took control of the game down the stretch,” teammate Arron Afflalo said. “He really stepped up in the fourth quarter.”
While Miller owned crunch time, Afflalo carried the Nuggets by scoring 25 points of his 30 points in the second and third quarters. After missing his first four shots, he finished 11-for-19 from the field, including a three-pointer that gave Denver a four-point lead with 48 seconds to play.
“I started out so bad, but I realized I was getting good looks,” Afflalo said. “I wasn’t discouraged.”
The same could be said of the Nuggets after the Suns turned a seven-point deficit in a five-point lead with a 13-1 run over a 3:21 stretch of the fourth quarter.
Slowed by Phoenix’s zone defense and struggling to keep the Suns off the offensive glass, the Nuggets finally got on track by getting some stops, rebounding and pushing the ball in the open court. Phoenix missed 11 of its final 12 shots, went scoreless over the final 3:09 and finished with 16 turnovers that Denver converted into 26 points. The Nuggets, meanwhile, tied a franchise record by committing just five turnovers.
“I don’t think we ever gave in mentally,” Karl said. “Your mind will control your body, and your heart will control your mind and your body. I thought we played with heart and I thought we played with a very willing desire and confidence.”
The Nuggets will need that same passion and effort over the course of the next three weeks. Only 3½ games separate fifth place from 10th.
“I don’t think anybody is home-free by any stretch of the imagination,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. “It’s going to basically come down to the last couple games of the season. We did it a couple years ago. We were in sixth place and we won a game in Utah the last game of the season that made us (jump) from sixth to third.”
The Nuggets and Suns will play again in Phoenix on April 21, but Denver has plenty of work to do before then.
Denver plays the first game of a home-and-home set against the Golden State Warriors on Saturday in Oakland. They also have two games against the Houston Rockets, who have an identical 30-25 record.
“Every night everybody’s watching the scoreboard,” Karl said. “It’s a little early. It usually happens with five or six games left. It’s wonderful to play in the West but this is what’s painful about playing in the West.
“If we put 37 or 38 wins on the board and someone beats us out, I think we can at least look in the mirror and say we’ve done our job. It is crazy, and I’m not going to predict what’s going to happen.”
Notes: Nuggets rookie forward Jordan Hamilton made his first career start and responded with 11 points and five rebounds in 17 minutes. He stepped in for Wilson Chandler, who missed his third game in a row with a groin strain … Afflalo is averaging 20.5 points over his past six games … Sixth Man of the Year candidate Al Harrington hit four three-pointers and scored 23 points off the bench for Denver … The Nuggets used their 22nd lineup of the season, and every player on the roster has now started at least one game … Denver has won five in a row against Phoenix and secured the season tiebreaker … The Nuggets made 11 three-pointers, improving to 8-0 when hitting at least 10 from behind the arc.