MILWAUKEE -- Playing short-handed has become almost second nature to the Denver Nuggets, who have gone extended periods this season without Ty Lawson and most recently, Danilo Gallinari.
On Monday in the BMO Harris Bradley Center, Denver was forced to take the court without its leading rebounder, Kenneth Faried, who earlier in the day underwent an MRI that revealed a sprained left foot and ankle.
Still, the Nuggets found a way, surviving a furious fourth quarter to outlast the Bucks 112-111 and clinch home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs.
Lawson, playing just his third game since returning from a foot injury that sidelined him for five games, took charge of the Nuggets' offense, scoring 26 points on 7-of-13 shooting and an 11-for-13 effort at the free-throw line. He hit the game-winning shot -- a 17-foot jumper -- with nine seconds remaining to clinch the victory for Denver (56-25).
"I just wanted the (isolation play)," Lawson said. "I passed it to Wilson (Chandler), and he passed it back. I saw the clean side and just started pushing real hard. I knew (Bucks defender Monte Ellis) would bite if I pushed it to the basket. (I) stepped back and had all the time in the world to make the shot."
In his past three games, Lawson is averaging 17 points and 6.7 rebounds.
"The first game, he was getting his confidence, the second game you saw him getting a little bit better, and tonight, being the stud on the court ... that's what we need," Denver coach George Karl said. "We know how valuable he is to us. He's reasserted himself. He's got a little bit of a strut, a little of his swag back."
Lawson was one of six Nuggets to score in double figures. Wilson Chandler had 21 points, and Andre Iguodala finished with 13. Andre Miller, despite shooting just 2-of-12, finished with 12 points, the same total as Evan Fournier. JaVale McGee had 10 points and 17 rebounds.
The Nuggets clinched home-court advantage but are still trying to clinch the No. 3 seed in the West. Their victory moves them a half-game ahead of the idle Los Angeles Clippers, who host the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday, and a game ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies, who beat the Dallas Mavericks 103-97 Monday night.
Milwaukee, locked into the eighth seed and a first-round matchup against the defending champion Miami Heat, challenged but couldn't close the gap against Denver, especially inside. The Bucks were outscored 56-44 in the paint and outrebounded 58-44 without Larry Sanders, who missed a third consecutive game because of a back injury.
Ellis led Milwaukee with 38 points -- with 25 of those coming in the fourth quarter. He gave the Bucks a 111-110 lead with 14.2 seconds to play after connecting from long distance and making the ensuing free throw.
"He's been a warrior for us all year," Milwaukee coach Jim Boylan said. "He's played hurt, sick, he's done everything. His performance tonight on both ends of the floor ... not many guys in the league can do what he does."
After Lawson's late shot, J.J. Reddick had a chance to win it for Milwaukee, but he missed a 3-point attempt as time expired. Redick was forced to sit out much of the second and third quarters after being hit in his left eye, but he returned to the game late in the third and finished with 20 points.
John Henson added 14 points and 15 rebounds for the Bucks, and Ersan Ilyasova had 14 points and 10 boards.
NOTES: Faried will miss the Nuggets' regular-season finale Wednesday against Phoenix with a sprained left foot and ankle, but he will be listed as day-to-day for the playoffs. Faried was injured in the first quarter of Denver's 118-109 victory Sunday over the Portland Trail Blazers. He underwent an MRI exam Monday, confirming the sprain. ... The Bucks got Brandon Jennings back in the lineup after the point guard missed the previous two games with a sore Achilles tendon. Jennings finished with four points and four assists in 29 minutes. ... Monday was the final home game of the season for the Bucks, who wrap up the regular season Wednesday in Oklahoma City.