Nuggets run past Rockets to open crucial home-and-home set

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The Nuggets began a seven-game series Sunday night.

Get four wins and they most likely clinch a playoff berth.

So far, so good after Game 1.

After a sloppy first half against Houston, the Nuggets turned up the defense, stepped on the accelerator and ran away with a 101-86 win over the Rockets at Pepsi Center.

“We’re in a playoff series,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. “We’re playing different teams but we’ve got to win this playoff series. We have to win at least four. If we do that, the game will give us an opportunity to play more.”

Arron Afflalo scored 18 of his 20 points in the second half to help Denver (33-27) move a game ahead of Houston for seventh place in the Western Conference playoff chase. The Nuggets also closed within a half-game of sixth-place Dallas.

The Rockets and Nuggets play again Monday night in Houston.

“It’s playoff time,” Denver guard Ty Lawson said. “This is where we’re going to position ourselves. If we beat Houston tomorrow, it’s going to be a huge advantage for us.”

If the Nuggets defend, rebound and run the way they did in the second half Sunday night, they will be in good shape.

Trailing 49-43 at halftime, Denver outscored Houston 28-12 over the first 8:37 of the third quarter to seize control of the game.

The surge continued in the fourth quarter, and one play in particular summed up the Nuggets’ effort.

After JaVale McGee blocked a shot by Chase Budinger, Afflalo saved the ball in front of the Denver bench and Andre Miller threw a 60-foot lob to Corey Brewer, who caught the pass in midair for an easy layup.

Brewer finished with 14 points off the bench, and his long arms caused problems defensively for Houston point guard Goran Dragic. Dragic missed 5 of 6 shots and scored just four points after halftime.

“Corey Brewer, he’s the sheriff around here,” Nuggets forward Al Harrington said. “We put him in there to lock people up. And he’s doing a good job at it.”

The Nuggets also did a better job containing Rockets forward Chase Budinger, who made four three-pointers and scored 16 points in the first half. Budinger went 1-for-5 and scored only three points in the second half.

“I didn’t think we played that well as a team in the first half,” Afflalo said. “We had a lot of turnovers, the game was kind of ugly a little bit. Despite that, we were only down six points. Once we started fast breaking and defending better. we were able to open the game at that point.”

The Nuggets will try to take that momentum and execution with to Houston in an attempt to secure the season series and the all-important tiebreaker that goes with it.

“I think it’s a game of maturity for us tomorrow,” Karl said. “They will make some adjustments. They will play differently. They’re going to play with an anger and an urgency that their season is in trouble if they lose. For us, it’s a chance to continue to figure out how to play big-time basketball games and be mature about it.”

With six games remaining, the Nuggets are starting to find some traction. They’ve won five straight home games for the first time this season and six of their past nine overall.

They have two games at Pepsi Center – Wednesday against the Los Angeles Clippers and Sunday against the Orlando Magic.

But first, they have to play Game 2 of their best-of-seven playoff push.

“We need to see what we’re made of,” Harrington said. “I challenged the guys. These two games are our playoffs. Now we’ve got to regroup and go get one down in Houston.”

NOTES: Lawson finished with 20 points, while rookie forward Kenneth Faried added 10 points and 11 rebounds for his ninth career double-double – all in the past 30 games. Denver improved to 8-1 when Faried records a double-double … Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler played for the first time since March 30 after missing seven games with a left hip strain. He did not score in 7 minutes … Denver finished with a 60-26 advantage in the paint, 29-10 in transition and 26-13 in points off turnovers … Miller recorded 11 assists; the Nuggets are 12-2 when has at least 10.