PHOENIX — At halftime of the biggest game of the Nuggets' season, coach George Karl stood before his team and said, "I'm scared to death."
The Suns shot 54.3 percent in the first half Saturday, and Marcin Gortat was looking like Kareem Abdul-Gortat.
"I think that was the worst defensive effort I've seen out of you," Karl told the Nuggets. "I can't believe we're up two points."
But the Nuggets altered their defense in the third quarter, swarming Gortat and pressuring the irritating 3-point shooters. The result was a runaway quarter and a resounding win, 118-107, clinching a playoff berth for Denver for the ninth straight season.
"Once we stopped Gortat's lobs from Steve Nash, it was murder she wrote,"
Only two NBA teams have longer active postseason streaks than Denver (San Antonio with 15 and Dallas with 12). But the Nuggets, who host Orlando tonight, don't know who they'll play starting next weekend. Dallas lost to Chicago on Saturday night, so Denver is sixth and Dallas seventh (the Mavericks, 36-29, have one game remaining, Thursday at Atlanta).
After tonight, the Nuggets (35-28) have two more games — at Oklahoma City on Wednesday and at Minnesota on Thursday. But Denver needed to win Saturday at Phoenix.
"It's an incredible win for us, to win on the road without ever going under 10 points in the second half," Karl said. "That's something the big boys do — and today, I think we played a lot like a big-time team."
And how about Ty Lawson? The point guard stomped on the accelerator throughout the pivotal third quarter, contributing 11 points and four assists. After the game, Lawson talked about mustering up extra motivation because back in 2009, the Suns drafted Earl Clark at No. 14 overall instead of Lawson, who went 18th.
Lawson seized Saturday's big stage, scoring a game-high 29 points. He also had 10 assists and only one turnover.
"The little guy was really good, but I don't want to kiss (his butt) too much. I think he should do that more often," Karl said with a smile. "Ty was special. I think he took on the Steve Nash challenge — the last time we played them, he didn't play very well. He was on (Saturday), he was our motor. In the second half, we passed the ball so well that I think it was difficult for them to figure out how to stop us. We made great reads and great passes. And we actually missed shots we should have made."
A major story line entering the game was Denver forward Danilo Gallinari, who is playing with an injured right wrist and left thumb that's still recovering from a fracture. Gallo smartly attacked the basket early, to get into an offensive flow, but still failed to find his touch from the outside. He shot 5-for-13 from the field, making only two shots that weren't right at the rim.
But Gallinari tried to make an impact in other areas, tallying four assists, grabbing two steals and blocking two shots.
"I'm ready to go," Gallo said. "We can still get the sixth seed (in the West), so we have to work hard in these (last) three games to get there."
Benjamin Hochman: 303-954-1294 or email@example.com
What you might have missed
Denver scored 26 fast-break points. Phoenix scored only two. ... Entering Saturday, the Nuggets' average of 52.5 points in the paint led the NBA. Against the Suns, they had 68 points in the paint. ... Phoenix guard Steve Nash moved ahead of Oscar Robertson for fifth place in career assists in NBA history. Nash had a game-high 13 vs. Denver.
The Nuggets are back in the playoffs.
Orlando at the Pepsi Center, tonight at 6 p.m.
ORLANDO AT DENVER 6 p.m. tonight, ALT, 104.3 FM, 103.1 FM, 950 AM
Spotlight on Glen Davis: With star center Dwight Howard out for the season because of a back injury, "Big Baby" has tried to pick up some of the slack for Orlando. In his last 10 games, the 6-foot-9, 290-pound Davis has averaged 18.6 points and 9.9 rebounds. In the Magic's 104-101 loss to Denver on April 1, Davis had 18 points and 16 rebounds.
Magic: Orlando is allowing only 92.9 points per game, sixth- fewest in the NBA. ... In the first Magic-Nuggets meeting this season, Orlando committed just 10 turnovers but lost because visiting Denver shot 55.6 percent from the field. The Magic wasted Jameer Nelson's game-high 27 points. This is Orlando's only game at the Pepsi Center this season. ... Ryan Anderson is averaging 18.1 points in Orlando victories. He's averaging 12.1 points in Orlando losses. ... In his last 10 games, Nelson has averaged 16.6 points and 7.1 assists.
Nuggets: This is Denver's final home game before the playoffs. The Nuggets are 19-13 at the Pepsi Center this season, 7-1 against Eastern Conference teams. ... Arron Afflalo contributed 6-of-10 shooting and 19 points to Denver's 118-107 victory at Phoenix on Saturday. Entering the game, Afflalo was hitting 49.7 percent of his shots since the all-star break, fourth-best among NBA shooting guards. ... Al Harrington continues to produce off the Denver bench. He made 4-of-7 shots and scored eight points Saturday.