Harrington leads the way off bench as Nuggets beat Spurs

Chandler hits game-winner to help Denver improve to 11-4 since All-Star break

The Nuggets had been in this precarious situation before.

Protecting a lead in the game’s final seconds, longtime protagonist Manu Ginobili with the ball.

“We didn’t want to foul him, didn’t want to give him an easy one,” Nuggets captain Kenyon Martin said. “Just give him a contested three.”

On Dec. 16, Ginobili hit a running bank shot and then drew a charge in the final seconds of San Antonio’s one-point victory at the Pepsi Center. The Spurs then beat Denver two more times in the next four weeks.

Martin and the Nuggets were determined to avoid a four-game season sweep.

Al Harrington, Raymond Felton and J.R. Smith came up big off the bench and Martin forced Ginobili into an airball at the buzzer Wednesday night as the Nuggets continued their post-All-Star break surge with a 115-112 win over the NBA-leading Spurs.

“They done beat us three times this year, so we needed this one,” Martin said. “Whether it’s a signature win or what, I don’t know, but we needed some confidence against this team in case we face them down the line.”

If there’s one thing the Nuggets (43-29) aren’t lacking these days, it’s confidence.

They are now 11-4 since making their franchise-altering trade on Feb. 22, and seem to be turning skeptics into believers with every victory.

“I hope (people) don’t notice,” Smith said. “I like being a sleeper team. I like coming out of nowhere and just collecting Ws. A lot of people don’t expect much out of us and I’m fine with that.”

Without a true commercial-making, headline-stealing superstar, the Spurs have won four championships in 12 seasons by playing together as a team, and the Nuggets are trying to follow the same formula for success.

Even though the Spurs (57-14) were playing without All-Star forward Tim Duncan, Wednesday’s victory qualified as one to remember. After giving up 69 points in the first half, the Nuggets were more physical and aggressive defensively in the second half, holding San Antonio to 43 points on .302 shooting.

“They were the measuring stick for us,” Harrington said. “We’re trying to play the way they play. They beat us three times and kind of had our number. We just played great tonight. We were able to accomplish our goal and get a win.”

Harrington, who has struggled to find much consistency while playing through a foot injury all season, came up big against the Spurs.

With San Antonio leading by as many as 14 points and threatening to pull away in the first half, Harrington scored 13 points in the second quarter and added nine more as the Nuggets surged ahead in the fourth.

“Al Harrington was sensational,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. “He was our life to get back in the game. Our bench, especially Al, gave us a lot of energy.”

Harrington, Felton (18 points, eight assists) and Smith (18 points) combined for 63 points off the bench, marking the first time in Denver’s NBA history that three reserves scored at least 18 points apiece in a single game.

Felton’s performance was particularly gritty as he played through lingering pain in his sprained left ankle. He scored eight points in the fourth quarter and assisted on all three of Harrington’s three-pointers that ignited the sellout crowd in the game’s final minutes.

“I always told Al, if you’re in the game with me and I penetrate and kick it to you, shoot the ball,” Felton said. “Guys have to have confidence. If you play with me, I’m going to give you confidence.”

Despite Felton’s playmaking and Harrington’s hot hand, the Nuggets were still locked in a tie game with 36.7 seconds remaining.

Two players – Arron Afflalo and Carmelo Anthony – have game-winning shots to their credit for Denver this season, and neither was in a Nuggets uniform against the Spurs. Afflalo is recovering from a strained left hamstring and Anthony is playing for the New York Knicks.

So whose number would Karl call with the game on the line?

Wilson Chandler was the man of the moment, losing Ginobili just inside the free-throw line and hitting a 14-foot jumper with 29.3 seconds to go.

“Coach drew up a play and I just took the shot with confidence,” said Chandler, who finished with eight points and a career-high six blocked shots.

After Ginobili missed a three-pointer with 12.9 seconds left, Felton made one of two free throws, giving San Antonio one final chance to send the game to overtime.

To no one’s surprise, the Spurs turned to Ginobili, but he fumbled the ball twice in the backcourt and launched a tough shot that fell well short and prompted another eruption from the crowd.

“Kenyon was all over him,” Harrington said. “That shot, I didn’t feel like it had any chance.”

Chandler grabbed the rebound just before the buzzer, prompting a post-game celebration that has become the norm over the past four weeks.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a statement win, but it’s a good win,” Felton said. “It’s a team that beat us three times this year. I wasn’t here (for the three losses), but I feel like they beat me too. It’s one that we needed.”

PATIENT AFFLALO: After returning too quickly from his hamstring injury, Afflalo said he will take no chances the second time around.

“Before, I thought if I could run, I could play,” he said. “Now I know. Even though I may be able to run around, I have to make sure it’s healed. I’m not as anxious this time.”

Afflalo missed three games after initially straining the hamstring on March 5 but aggravated the injury three games into his return. He has missed the past two games.

ETC: Spurs rookie Gary Neal scored a career-high 25 points on the strength of 6-of-8 three-point shooting. He is 15-for-25 from long range in four games against Denver this season … The Nuggets have won eight straight home games and moved 14 games above .500 for the second time this season … Denver improved to 13-0 at home when shooting at least 50 percent from the field.

Aaron Lopez
Aaron J. Lopez is the primary writer for Nuggets.com, providing behind-the-scenes content, including feature stories and video for the site. Before joining the Nuggets in 2009, he spent 15 years covering Colorado sports for the Rocky Mountain News and the Associated Press, making him one of the longest-tenured sports writers in Denver. Aaron's full bio...