It was a wild finish at the BMO Harris Bradley Center on Monday night, as the host Milwaukee Bucks and visiting Denver Nuggets battled back and forth in a nip-and-tuck fourth quarter that saw 65 points scored, three ties and 12 lead changes in the final 12 minutes. Behind a sizzling stanza from Monta Ellis — 19 of his game-high 38 points game in the fourth quarter, including a thrilling 4-point play that gave Milwaukee a 111-110 lead with 14.2 seconds left — the East's slumping No. 8 seed had a chance to end a four-game skid and notch an impressive win over a Western Conference power.
Just one problem: Milwaukee had to give the ball back to Ty Lawson.
After triggering the inbounds, Lawson darted in from the left sideline, took a handoff from Denver forward Wilson Chandler and headed to the top of the key. Rather than pull back to drain the clock or trigger a coach-called action, Lawson continued to press his right-hand dribble against the defense of Ellis, entering the paint before stopping on a dime inside the foul line, leaving Monta in the dust and raising up for a short jumper that splashed through, putting Denver back up by one with 9.3 ticks remaining. (Like it should surprise us that Nuggets coach George Karl wanted his point guard to go fast.)
With no timeouts remaining, Jim Boylan's Bucks had to go the length of the floor and seek a viable game-winning option; as they had throughout the quarter, they banked on Ellis' ability to beat Denver's defense off the dribble. This time, though, Monta lost the handle as he drove to the middle of the floor, thanks in large part to a perfectly timed double/lunge by Denver reserve Corey Brewer. Milwaukee had one clean look when the loose ball bounced to J.J. Redick at the top of the key, but his 25-footer went long, the clock hit triple zeroes and Denver hung on for a 112-111 win that ensured the Nuggets — the league's best home club this season, with a 37-3 mark heading into Wednesday's Pepsi Center finale against the Phoenix Suns — will open the first round of the Western Conference playoffs at home.
Who they'll play and which seed they'll occupy remains unclear. Right now, Denver sits third in the West at 56-25, with the 54-26 Los Angeles Clippers in fourth place and the 55-26 Memphis Grizzlies in fifth. (L.A. is assured of a top-four seed by virtue of winning the Pacific Division, despite the fact that Memphis has a better record; if the Grizzlies finished the season with more wins than the Clippers, they'd have home-court advantage in a prospective Round 1 rematch, but would still have a lower seed, because the NBA makes a lot of sense.)
If the Clippers lose to the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday night, the Nuggets will lock in that No. 3 seed, because L.A. won't be able to finish with more wins than Denver and because Denver won its head-to-head season series with Memphis three games to one. If the Clippers beat the Blazers, Denver loses to Phoenix and the Clippers beat the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday, both teams would finish 56-26, and L.A. would take the third slot due to being a division winner ... despite the fact that Denver won its head-to-head season series with L.A. two games to one. (Again, the NBA makes a lot of sense.) In that scenario, the Nuggets would finish fourth and Memphis would finish fifth — no matter what, we know that Memphis will finish fifth.
And after Monday's crunch-time heroics from Lawson, no matter what, we know that Denver will open the postseason by welcoming an opponent to the Mile High City, which coach Karl termed "huge," according to Dave Boehler of the Associated Press:
"Don't get me wrong. The teams we're going to play in the first round are capable of beating us on our home court. I've always felt that home court, if it was an even series, it's tough for teams to win twice on your home court. And our home court, I know teams don't like to play there. Hopefully mentally they struggle with the thought of playing there."
Similarly huge: Monday's strong play from Lawson, who finished with a team-high 26 points (including an 11 of 13 mark at the free-throw line for the smallest guy on the court), seven assists, five rebounds and two steals in the win, his third game back after missing more than two weeks with a plantar fascia tear in his right heel.
Lawson had looked fine but not remarkable in his first two games since returning from injury — 13 points in 19 minutes off the bench in a loss to the Dallas Mavericks; 12 points, 10 assists and three steals in his first start back in a win over the Blazers — but Monday's performance, and especially that last shot, suggested that while Lawson's "heel is not all the way healed [...] his game is," according to Chris Dempsey of the Denver Post:
The degree of difficulty won’t go down as calculus level stuff. It was a 10-ish-foot jumper. But Lawson’s speed and quickness, which was in full display on the play, got him free for an open look. And in the process wiped away — or should have — any of the doubt about what he is and can be in the playoffs.
Initially, Karl said if Lawson could give 20-25 minutes when he returned that he could work with that. And yet Lawson, since returning late last week, has given him so much more. [...]
After Sunday’s game against Portland, Karl was already gushing: “I couldn’t have asked for a better script these last two games,” he said of his point guard.
[Monday's] game should have erased any other doubts.
Lawson back in form, home-court in Round 1 clinched, Kenneth Faried vowing to return for the playoffs after spraining his left ankle on Sunday ("If I can walk, I can play") ... things seem to be turning back toward the positive for the Nuggets, which doesn't seem like great news for the No. 5 or 6 seed they'll meet in a few days' time.
If the clip above isn't rocking for you, please feel free to check out the game-winner elsewhere, thanks to our friends at the NBA.