DENVER — When George Karl took over, the Denver Nuggets’ chances of reaching the playoffs were almost gone.
How things have changed.
The Nuggets have come all the way back in the playoff race, but their ride was almost ruined that by the shorthanded Indiana Pacers. Denver grabbed a big lead against the Pacers, watched the Pacers nearly erase the whole thing before winning Thursday night.
“The first half made me celebrate,” Karl said. “The second half gave me a headache. There was no flow to the game.”
The Nuggets beat the Pacers, 96-87, but it was closer than it should have been. Denver led by as many as 22, but Indiana made it a game in the fourth quarter before running out of hope. Without Jermaine O’Neal, who left the game with a sprained right shoulder with 4 minutes, 34 seconds left in the first half, the Pacers were out of sync until they got hopelessly behind.
The win put the Nuggets at 29-29, the first time they’ve been at .500 since they were 13-13 on Dec. 22. It also moved them into a tie with the Los Angeles Lakers for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with 24 games left — 14 of which are at the Pepsi Center.
Thursday’s game could have been problematic because Denver was playing without Kenyon Martin (left knee tendonitis) and Nene (left knee sprain). But center Marcus Camby mitigated their absences with team highs in rebounds (22), assists (7) and blocks (7), while also scoring 17 points. His seven assists ties his season high.
“I was just playing the game hard like I do every night,” Camby said. “I was just happy we got the win.”
Karl praised Camby’s game in the absence of the two big men.
“Marcus was just incredible,” he said.
He could have sat on the bench the entire fourth quarter if Indiana hadn’t made it close. Denver enjoyed its biggest lead at 79-57 late in the third quarter, but the Pacers didn’t give up. They pulled within 92-85 with 4:13 left, and despite a couple of chances, they never got closer.
“They’re a veteran team, and we knew they were going to make a run,” Camby said. “They have a lot of pride over there. I was ready to go back in. There was a shortage of bigs tonight.”
The Pacers were shorthanded after O’Neal went out. The team’s leading scorer was hurt when Denver’s Francisco Elson fouled him on a block attempt.
O’Neal was in pain, and he nearly went to the locker room right then, but he needed to shoot his free throws or be ineligible to return to the game.
With his right arm hanging against his midsection, O’Neal hit both free throws with his left, and then left the court.
O’Neal didn’t return, and he left the arena with his right arm in a sling, his status for the rest of the Pacers’ road trip is up in the air.
“I was hoping nothing was wrong with Jermaine, but obviously everybody has to step up now,” said Indiana forward Stephen Jackson, who led his team with 16 points.
With O’Neal out, the Pacers turned to David Harrison, the former University of Colorado star, but his return to the area didn’t go well. He was heckled before he got into the game, and he did nothing to silence his critics, shooting two airballs and committing two fouls in 3 minutes of work.
Carmelo Anthony had a much different game than Harrison. Without Martin or Nene, Anthony moved his game to the low post, and it paid off. He scored a game-high 28 points and was 14 of 16 from the foul line.
“I’m Carmelo Anthony again,” he said, putting behind the troubles he had earlier in the season.
The Nuggets have all but put their bad start behind. They are 12-4 under Karl, and they have a good shot at beating out the reeling Minnesota Timberwolves and Lakers for the last playoff spot.
“If we get to 43 or 44 wins, we should applaud ourselves,” Karl said. “If it isn’t enough, we’ll just shake their hands.”