OAKLAND, Calif. -- Golden State coach Mark Jackson has raved about his three rookies all season.
With the NBA's spotlight shining its brightest Friday night, the trio came through like veterans.
Harrison Barnes poured in 19 points, Draymond Green shut down Game 1 star Andre Miller and Festus Ezeli played a critical role in the biggest play of the game as the Warriors held off the Denver Nuggets 110-108 to take a 2-1 lead in their Western Conference best-of-7 first-round series.
Game 4 is Sunday night in Oakland.
Ezeli's play was the biggest in a fast-and-furious finish.
After getting a five-second inbounding violation on the Warriors with 9.4 seconds to go, the Nuggets improbably had a chance to win, needing just a two-point basket to overturn a 109-108 deficit.
They put the ball in the hands of Ty Lawson, who had been unstoppable most of the night with 35 points. But the speedy point guard, defended initially by Klay Thompson, was trapped on the right side of the court by Ezeli, stumbled and lost the ball out of bounds with 5.3 seconds left.
"My instructions were to blitz him," the Warriors' backup center said. "I do that well. That's why I was in there."
Nuggets coach George Karl, standing 75 feet from the action at the other end of the court, thought Lawson was in the process of perhaps finding an open cutter when, well, he couldn't explain what happened.
"I'm going to have to look at the tape," he said, shaking his head over what he thought could have been a foul on Ezeli. "Somehow, he decided to dribble out of bounds."
Ezeli had a firsthand explanation.
"He tried to run into me and flop," the defensive specialist observed. "That's the way I saw it."
Barnes capped his 19-point night with a free throw that made it a two-point game with 3.7 seconds left. Without a timeout, the best the Nuggets could do from there was get a half-court heave by Andre Iguodala, which clanged off the rim.
The crazy final seconds were reminiscent of the final 1:54, during which the Warriors, after taking a 108-102 lead on two Stephen Curry free throws, missed two shots and two free throws and also committed two turnovers.
But the Nuggets couldn't take advantage despite getting a three-point play from Lawson that cut the six-point deficit in half with still 1:48 to go. They, like the Warriors, wasted two opportunities with turnovers and also missed three shots.
Wilson Chandler's 3-pointer with 16.5 seconds remaining kept the Nuggets alive, getting them within 109-108 and setting up the five-second inbounds call that was the Warriors' 23rd turnover of the night. But in the end, Golden State won it with defense in a series that had been dominated by offense for two games and the first three quarters Friday.
"When you make defense your primary focus, you're going to be in ballgames," Warriors coach Mark Jackson said. "That's what happened, especially in the second half, which was a thing of beauty. We gave up 42 second-half points because we locked in and we competed."
Curry, showing no effects of a sprained left ankle suffered in Game 2, led the Warriors with 29 points in 38 minutes. Jarrett Jack added 23 points, and Carl Landry matched Barnes' total with 19.
Green hit a 3-pointer in the fourth quarter as the Warriors, who trailed by 12 at halftime, were getting the upper hand. But his biggest contribution was defending Miller, who missed 11 of his 13 shots from the field and totaled only seven points.
"We took advantage of the moment," Green said of the Warriors' rookies. "Some coaches don't even play rookies. We got a chance to play a lot this season. What we did tonight was nothing more than what we've gotten a chance to do all season."
Four Nuggets scored in double figures to back Lawson, led by Corey Brewer with 16. Kenneth Faried, making his first start of the series, had 15 points, Iguodala 14 and Chandler 11.
"I told the team: The process in the NBA playoffs is to get better," said Karl, whose team was coming off a 14-point home loss in Game 2. "Tonight we got better. Tonight was a great game to be a part of. Sunday is going to be fun."
Lawson hit all 12 of his free throws and also had 10 assists.
"Ty was spectacular. Ty was great," Karl said. "Andre (Miller) was great in Game 1. Tonight they put the Green kid on him a lot. Our point-guard play was pretty good: Andre doesn't have a great game; Ty has a special game."
NOTES: Curry had averaged 42.5 minutes in the first two games, the highest figure for all playoff participants. ... There were 16 lead changes and nine ties in the evenly contested game. ... The Nuggets led the league in offensive rebounds during the regular season, but the Warriors had more offensive boards than Denver in the game, 12-11, and enjoyed a 42-34 overall advantage in rebounding. ... Oracle Arena was a sea of yellow for the game, with every ticket-holder receiving a yellow t-shirt with "WE ARE WARRIORS" stamped across the front in blue. ... Asked before the game what kind of impact he expected the home crowd to have, Jackson said, "They won't win the ballgame." ... Karl is familiar with Golden State playoff upsets. In his first full season as Warriors coach in 1986-87, Karl led Golden State into the playoffs as the No. 5 seed and then presided over a 3-2 upset of fourth-seeded Utah in the first round. ... Game 3 of the series marked the 200th playoff appearance for Karl, including 182 as an NBA coach. He also played 17 playoff games in the ABA and one in the NBA. Jackson, meanwhile, was participating in his 134th playoff game, 131 as a player and his third as a coach.