The Denver Nuggets already are in playoff mode, even though theyre still fighting for a postseason berth.
Arron Afflalo scored 26 points, Ty Lawson had 25, and the Nuggets continued their push up the standings with a 105-102 victory over the fading Houston Rockets on Monday night.
Al Harrington added 15 points, and Andre Miller had 13 assists for the Nuggets, who swept back-to-back games with the Rockets, the team that was directly behind them in the Western Conference.
Our awareness of where we are in the season is really starting to heighten now, said Afflalo, who went 10 of 16 from the field. Before, we used to go out there and compete and play the games. Now, we have an ulterior motive almost, in terms of understanding playoff positioning. Thats good for a young team.
Denver began the night holding the No. 7 spot in the West, one game ahead of the Rockets. The Nuggets have won four of their last five and snapped a three-game road losing streak.
We had opportunities to give up on the game and we didnt do it, Denver coach George Karl said. Its a huge win for us.
Houston, meanwhile, was only one game ahead of Phoenix and 1½ games ahead of Utah entering Monday.
Goran Dragic and Chandler Parsons scored 21 points apiece for the Rockets, who have dropped four in a row after a four-game road winning streak.
We were right there, Dragic said. We knew we had to get that game if we want to win a tiebreaker against Denver. We cannot think backwards; we have to think forward.
The Rockets play at Dallas on Wednesday night, a virtual must-win game if they want to keep their playoff hopes alive.
We were sitting good a few games ago, and now were not sitting so good, Houston coach Kevin McHale said. Weve just got to go in and take care of ourselves.
Denver led 75-74 after three quarters, and the fourth was tight all the way to the end.
The Nuggets took a 99-98 lead into the final 2 minutes, and Afflalo found Harrington with a wraparound pass for an easy layup with 1:19 left to make it 101-98. Parsons rattled in a jumper from the free-throw line, but with all the Nuggets standing on the sideline, Lawson hit a 3-pointer from the corner with 45 seconds left to silence the noisy crowd.
We couldve easily come in here and settled (for a loss), Miller said. It definitely showed some character, coming in here (and winning), especially against a team thats fighting for a playoff spot.
Patrick Patterson hit a short jumper, and Luis Scola had a chance to tie it, but his runner in the lane rattled out with 6 seconds left. Afflalo, a 79 percent free-throw shooter, split two free throws with 3.9 seconds remaining, giving the Rockets a chance to tie it.
But Parsons desperation 3-pointer hit off the front of the rim, and Denver sent Houston to its fourth consecutive home loss, a season high.
We cant afford to play like this, Parsons said. Were letting it slip away.
Corey Brewer scored all 11 of his points in the fourth quarter, and the Nuggets finished 9 of 18 from 3-point range to win in Houston for the first time since October 2010.
We just played hard to the end, Brewer said. And we were able to get one.
Houston shot well at the start, led by as many as 11 in the first half and was up 51-44 at halftime.
The Nuggets made nine of their first 14 shots out of the break. Harrington made two 3s, and Afflalo scored in the lane to put Denver up 67-66. Courtney Lee swept in for a layup, and Houston moved back in front with 3:49 left in the quarter.
The teams swapped the lead five more times in the quarter, and Denver took a one-point lead to the final 12 minutes. The lead changed hands 16 times in all before the Nuggets finally put it away.
Our mental toughness was pretty good, Afflalo said. They gave us some tough hits. Every time we fought back, they would make plays.