DENVER (AP)—These San Antonio Spurs suddenly look more king of the mountain than over the hill.
The seasoned Spurs took a 2-1 series lead on the youthful Denver Nuggets with a 96-91 victory Saturday night that was fueled by two old pros with a combined quarter century of NBA experience.
With Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker doing the heavy lifting as usual, 36-year-old Robert Horry and 34-year-old Michael Finley put the game out of reach with a flurry of 3-pointers in the third quarter.
Finley started it off with a 3 that gave San Antonio a 64-62 lead. After a jumper by Allen Iverson tied it, Ginobili sank two free throws, then Horry stole the ball from playoff novice J.R. Smith under the basket and sank his own 3-pointer for a 69-64 lead.
“This is a time when you can go out and use your knowledge,” Horry said. “I have been in the league for 15 years, and you tend to read situations because you have seen situations. I can read a situation where someone might inbound the ball and be a little lackadaisical and I have been watching J.R. play, and he does the same move every time, so I was able to get my hands on one.”
The Nuggets, who got 28 points from Carmelo Anthony and 20 from Iverson, never recovered.
Iverson and Smith got tangled up going for a rebound and Finley raced downcourt for another 3 that made it 72-64 with 1:02 left in the quarter. Horry, who scored 10, then set up in the right corner and sank another 3-pointer to give San Antonio a 75-67 lead going into the fourth quarter.
“We made some big shots behind some big stops,” said Finley, who was 5-of-7 from the arc for 16 points. “That was the key. The shots were big, but the stops were even bigger because we prevented them from scoring and at the same time made shots.”
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who has heard plenty about how his team is getting too old for all of this, demurred when asked about the value of experience in the playoffs.
“It’s however you all want to spin it,” he said. “When we lose, we’re older than dirt. When we win, we’re really experienced, executing fools. So, write it any way you want it.”
And which way does he see it?
“A little bit of both, probably,” Popovich said with a smile. “Yeah, a little bit of both.”
Game 4 is Monday night at the Pepsi Center, where the Nuggets went just 23-18 during the season, the seventh-worst home record in franchise history, and where they’re just 2-5 in the playoffs since 2004.
“They got the home-court advantage back and it’s important for us to come in on Monday and tie the series up,” Iverson said.
Ginobili’s two free throws made it 77-67. The Nuggets trimmed their deficit to five points on several occasions and got within three in the final seconds, but a series of forced shots that clanged off the iron doomed Denver to another home loss and returned the home-court advantage to San Antonio, which lost Game 1 at home before winning the next two.
“Once they got that little run at the end of the third quarter, they had the momentum and it was just tough for us to come back,” Iverson said. “And then every time we got it to five points, they scored again. We just couldn’t stop them when we needed to.”
Duncan had 20 points and 13 rebounds. Parker led San Antonio with 21 points and Ginobili added 19, including two free throws to ice it after ‘Melo’s layup with 7.8 seconds left made it 94-91.
Nuggets center Marcus Camby accepted his award for Defensive Player of the Year in pregame ceremonies, then quickly tried his hand at offense, but was just 1-for-6 in the first quarter and committed an offensive foul on another drive to the basket.
The Spurs hit two clock-beating 3-pointers in the closing minutes of the first quarter to trim an early eight-point deficit to 25-22. The first one was Parker’s and came after Finley sank a free throw when Denver coach George Karl drew a rare technical from official Bob Delaney for leaving the coach’s box.
Even commissioner David Stern said at halftime that’s not a violation that’s usually called. Popovich couldn’t recall the last time he saw one, and Karl said he’d never been whistled for being out of the coaching box in his 19 NBA seasons as a head coach.
“Maybe a long time ago in the CBA,” Karl said.
Karl’s worries go way beyond the officiating. He has to figure out a way to stop a Spurs team deep on experience and talent, one that beat the Nuggets four straight times two years ago after dropping Game 1 in San Antonio.
“This ain’t the same as 2005,” Anthony insisted. “Totally different team, totally different mentality. When I walked in that locker room at the end of the game, nobody’s heads were down. In 2005, we had guys with towels on their heads, and you could look in people’s eyes and see that they had given up on that series. Now we know what we want, and we have a chance to go get it.”
The crowd of 19,951 was the largest in franchise history. … The Spurs have closed out 17 of 18 series since 1982 in which they’ve taken a 2-1 lead.