SAN ANTONIO — San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich treats the stretch run of the regular season like a series of final exams for his team.
The Spurs passed their latest — just barely.
Tim Duncan had 23 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks and the San Antonio Spurs escaped with a 100-99 win over Denver on Wednesday night when Nuggets veteran guard Andre Miller missed a short jumper at the buzzer.
“The schedule that we have is something that should be embraced and considered a great opportunity,” Popovich said, “because it’s like taking a final exam every day or most days. To get ready for the playoffs, understanding the physicality, aggressiveness and competitiveness that’s necessary night after night in the playoffs.”
Denver dished out a heavy dose of that playoff intensity.
Danny Green added 20 points and Tony Parker had 18 points and 11 assists for the Spurs, who remained 1 1/2 games ahead of Oklahoma City in the race for the top spot in the Western Conference. Kawhi Leonard had 11 points and Tiago Splitter 10.
JaVale McGee had 21 points and 11 rebounds, Wilson Chandler scored 15 points and Miller 14 for the Nuggets, whose reserves outscored their Spurs counterparts 59-18. Kenneth Faried and Danilo Gallinari added 12 points apiece and Andre Igoudala had 10.
San Antonio’s starting five all scored in double figures, averaging 16.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists to counter Denver’s bench and escape with its sixth straight home victory in a game that had 20 lead changes.
“I’m pretty sure the film will show it was a good loss, maybe the best loss of the year,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. “We did a lot of great stuff. We had to fight a lot of things and overcome not shooting the ball well. I think we know we can play better but I thought the heart of the game was pretty first class.”
Denver outscored San Antonio 24-17 in the fourth quarter, including a 6-3 run in the final two minutes.
Duncan missed an 18-foot jumper with 10.2 seconds left, setting up Miller’s driving attempt that bounced off the back of the rim as the buzzer sounded.
Green was able to close on Gallinari, who was forced to give up the ball to Miller behind the 3-point line. Miller drove into the paint on Parker, but was unable to make the off-balance runner.
“I think we gave it a good shot,” Karl said. “I’ve seen Andre make that shot a hundred times, but I’m not disappointed. I would’ve rather had Gallinari, probably in the attack. We knew they were probably going to switch our stuff. When he hesitated, it took enough time off the clock where Andre didn’t have much of anything to do but attack aggressively and get us a good shot.”
The Spurs (54-17) pulled within two games of Miami (56-15) in the loss column for the league’s best record. The Heat lost 101-97 at Chicago, snapping their 27-game winning streak.
San Antonio’s final 15 games feature matchups against 11 playoff teams, including its next two against the Los Angeles Clippers (Friday) and Miami (Sunday).
“It’s a great win to start this homestand here,” Duncan said. “We’ve got some really tough games this part of the schedule down the stretch here. It’s going to be tough for us, so we need to win everyone we can get.”
San Antonio escaped a minor scare when Parker sprained his right middle finger late in the third quarter, but returned to score four points in the fourth.
“I had no feeling in my finger so I just wanted to make sure it was not broken,” said Parker, who will have X-rays Thursday morning. “They don’t think it’s broken.”
Continuing the momentum they captured late in the first half, the Spurs outscored Denver 32-21 during a third quarter in which they shot 3 for 3 from 3-point range. The Nuggets failed to score any fast-break points in the third and were 9 for 23 in the quarter.
“It was a great test for our defense and for our offense when you play a team like that,” Parker said. “They pack it in the paint really good. They stopped my penetrations, Manu’s penetrations. So we had to make shots and trust each other. It was a great playoff intensity.”
THUNDER 103, WIZARDS 80
OKLAHOMA CITY — Russell Westbrook scored 21 points and Kevin Durant had 20 to help Oklahoma City beat Washington.
Kevin Martin added 18 points for the Thunder, who are 1½ games behind San Antonio for the top spot in the West.
Washington had won its previous two games against Oklahoma City, winning the only meeting during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season before stunning the Thunder 101-99 in Washington on Jan. 7.
Wall, coming off 47 points in a win over Memphis, had 18 points and 12 assists for Washington but was 3-of-18 from the field.
KNICKS 108, GRIZZLIES 101
NEW YORK — J.R. Smith scored 35 points, his second straight 30-point game, and New York withstood a furious rally to beat Memphis.
Carmelo Anthony added 22 points and Iman Shumpert had 16 as the Knicks tied a season high with their sixth straight win.
After trailing by as many as 30 early in the second half, the Grizzlies cut their deficit to 103-99 on Tony Allen’s two free throws with 33 seconds left. However, they got no closer as Raymond Felton, Smith and Anthony scored the game’s next five points at the free throw line.
Mike Conley led Memphis with 26 points, Bayless had 24 and Allen had 18 points and 10 rebounds.
CLIPPERS 105, HORNETS 91
NEW ORLEANS — Blake Griffin scored 19 points and Chris Paul added 16 points and nine assists to lead Los Angeles over New Orleans.
Caron Butler and Jamal Crawford each scored 13 for the Clippers, who were playing one night after falling in overtime at Dallas. Chauncey Billups briefly returned from a right groin strain to score 11 points before leaving the game with the same injury.
The Clippers opened up a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter and pulled even with Denver for the third-best record (49-23) in the West.
Eric Gordon scored 24 and Anthony Davis had 19 points and nine rebounds for New Orleans.
PACERS 100, ROCKETS 91
HOUSTON — Roy Hibbert scored a season-high 28 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, and Lance Stephenson added a season-high 21 points to lead Indiana to a victory over Houston.
The Pacers never trailed and led by as many as 19 points. Houston made several runs, once cutting the deficit to four, but Indiana answered each time. The Central Division-leading Pacers weren’t back to full strength but got a boost from the return of Stephenson, who missed Indiana’s last game with a strained right hip flexor, and George Hill, also sidelined with a strained left groin.
James Harden had 22 points and eight assists for the Rockets, whose winning streak was snapped at three games.
NETS 111, BLAZERS 93
PORTLAND, Ore. — Reggie Evans grabbed a career-high 26 rebounds and matched his career high with 22 points, leading Brooklyn to a win over Portland.
It was the Nets’ 20th road win of the season, matching a franchise best. Brook Lopez added 28 points for the Nets, who built a big lead early and stretched it to as many as 30 points.
LaMarcus Aldridge led Portland with 24 points despite rolling his right ankle in the first half and briefly leaving the game.
Most of the Nets starters had retreated to the bench before Portland pulled within 101-87 on Luke Babbitt’s 3-pointer with six minutes remaining. The starters returned, but Portland got no closer.
LAKERS 120, TIMBERWOLVES 117
MINNEAPOLIS — Kobe Bryant had 31 points and seven assists in his first game filling in at small forward for injured Metta World Peace, leading Los Angeles over Minnesota.
Dwight Howard had 25 points, 16 rebounds, five blocks and five steals, and Pau Gasol added 17 points and nine rebounds for the Lakers, who had lost three in a row and were playing their first game without their defensive stopper. World Peace will have surgery on a torn meniscus on Thursday, leaving the Lakers to chase the playoffs without him.
Nikola Pekovic had 19 points and 16 rebounds for the Timberwolves, who have lost the last 22 meetings against the Lakers and haven’t beaten them since March 2007.
HAWKS 107, RAPTORS 88
TORONTO — Al Horford scored 26 points, Jeff Teague had 24 points and 13 assists and Atlanta clinched a playoff berth for the sixth straight season with a win over Toronto.
Josh Smith added 19 points for the Hawks, who used a 16-0 run midway through the fourth to win for the 13th time in the last 15 meetings with the Raptors.
Horford reached double digits for the 31st consecutive game, the second-longest streak of his career. He did it in 33 straight games in 2009-10.
Jonas Valanciunas scored 19 points, and Rudy Gay had 15 points and matched a season best with 12 rebounds for the Raptors, who have lost four straight and 11 of 14.
CELTICS 93, CAVALIERS 92
CLEVELAND — Jeff Green scored 21 points and hit the winning layup at the buzzer, helping Boston snap a five-game losing streak with a win over Cleveland.
Brandon Bass scored 22 points to lead the Celtics, who rallied from a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter to avoid matching their longest skid of the season.
After Cleveland’s Alonzo Gee knocked the ball out of bounds with 2.1 seconds left, Green took an inbound pass from Avery Bradley at the top of the key, drove into the lane and scored over two defenders as time expired.
Wayne Ellington had 16 points for Cleveland, which has lost six in a row to match a season high.
KINGS 105, WARRIORS 98
OAKLAND, Calif. — Isaiah Thomas had 31 points and seven assists, DeMarcus Cousins added 14 points and Sacramento put another dent in Golden State’s playoff chase.
Marcus Thornton scored 13 points off the bench and helped harass Stephen Curry to send Sacramento to its first road win against a team with a winning record all season. The Kings entered the game an NBA-worst 6-30 on the road.
David Lee had 20 points and 10 rebounds, and Curry finished with 17 points and 12 assists on a difficult shooting night for the Warriors point guard. Golden State (41-32) missed an opportunity to build its lead on seventh-place Houston (39-32), which remains a game back in the West.
76ERS 100, BUCKS 92
PHILADELPHIA — Spencer Hawes had 15 points and a career-high 17 rebounds, and Jrue Holiday and Damien Wilkins each scored 18 points to lead Philadelphia past Milwaukee.
Thaddeus Young and Dorell Wright both scored 14 points for the Sixers, who returned from a 1-3 road trip to win their third straight game at home.
Brandon Jennings was scoreless for Milwaukee and benched in the fourth quarter. Monta Ellis scored 29 points for the Bucks and Ersan Ilyasova had 13 points and 18 rebounds.
The Sixers wasted an 18-point lead and needed a few big shots from long range in the fourth to make it a game. Wright, Holiday and Evan Turner each hit a 3-pointer to help the 76ers rally.
JAZZ 103, SUNS 88
SALT LAKE CITY — Al Jefferson and Gordon Hayward scored 25 points apiece and Utah beat Phoenix to stay within a game of the eighth-place Lakers in the Western Conference playoff race.
Jefferson finished 12 of 23 from the field and also had nine rebounds, two blocks and two steals for Utah.
The Jazz used a 10-0 run to open the fourth quarter and led by as many as 19 while outscoring Phoenix 56-32 in the paint.
Wesley Johnson had 22 points and Luis Scola 20 to lead the Suns, who allowed Utah to shoot 52 percent in dropping their fourth straight.
BOBCATS 114, MAGIC 108
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Gerald Henderson and Kemba Walker each scored 34 points, and Charlotte handed injury-riddled Orlando its eighth straight loss in a matchup of the NBA’s worst teams.
The Bobcats erased a 19-point, first-quarter deficit behind the shooting of Henderson, who finished 12 of 18 from the field and 9 of 10 from the foul line.
Walker did a little bit of everything, dishing out nine assists and grabbing seven rebounds as the Bobcats won for the fourth time in their last five home games.
Tobias Harris had a career-high 29 points and nine rebounds, and rookie Kyle O’Quinn had a career-best 23 points and 11 rebounds for the Magic.