Juwan Howard scored a season-high 31 points and the Rockets handed the playoff-bound Nuggets their third straight loss by scoring the final 11 points in an 86-83 victory Monday night.
"I don't even know what happened out there, it was all so fast," said Carmelo Anthony, who watched the entire fourth quarter from the bench for the second straight game.
Chuck Hayes had a steal and dunk for the go-ahead score with 13.4 seconds left as the Rockets, long eliminated from the playoff chase in this injury-plagued season, won for only the second time in nine games.
Trailing 84-83, Marcus Camby missed a 20-footer that would have put Denver ahead with 6 seconds left. After Rafer Alston hit two free throws, Camby missed a desperation heave and the Nuggets left the court to full-throated booing from their fans on "Fan Appreciation Night," the final home game of the regular season.
"It helps you feel good about the effort we put forth on a nightly basis," Alston said.
Joining Anthony on the bench for the fourth quarter, also for the second straight game, was Andre Miller.
Coach George Karl did it to send a message last Saturday in a blowout loss at home to Sacramento. This time, the coach said he was simply trying to give his starters some rest -- the playoffs are coming soon -- and thought the Nuggets could hold on.
"I'd say probably 80 percent of it is on me and the rotation of the game," Karl said. "We didn't have a great offensive team in there, but we thought we had enough points to win the game and we got caught."
Anthony still led the Nuggets with 22 points and finished with six rebounds, marking the first time he's surpassed five in the last 18 games.
But a 16-point lead dwindled to single figures with Anthony on the floor in the third and Karl miscalculated, thinking he could sit both Melo and Miller, who finished with seven points and seven assists.
Thus added to a painful several days for the Nuggets, who look anything like the division champions they are. This debacle came one day after Karl said he was angry with the team's effort and that it was "hard to evaluate the lack of commitment in so many areas of basketball."
The Nuggets, who clinched the Northwest Division last week, might simply be resting up for the playoffs or might be in a genuine slump.
Karl said he wasn't angry after this one, but concerned.
"My concern is, we're playing with energy spurts," he said. "Our second halves have been dead for about 10 games. We've got to change that."
Regardless, they're not heading into the playoffs on a high note. They've got one more regular-season game to get a confidence boost -- Wednesday at Seattle -- before starting the playoffs on the road against either the Clippers or Grizzlies.
"I just think we weren't into this ballgame," Camby said. "This team, without their two All-Stars, we should have won this game handily."
The Nuggets still looked like they'd sneak away with an ugly win, leading 83-75 with 2 minutes left.
But Alston made a 3-pointer with 1:29 left to pull within five, then Keith Bogans had a steal and layup. After a bad possession led to a backcourt violation against Denver, Howard spotted up on the baseline for a bucket that made it 83-82. Then, Houston trapped Nuggets guard Howard Eisley in the backcourt, and that led to Hayes' steal and the go-ahead bucket with 13.4 seconds left.
Anthony said he offered to go back in the game for the end. Karl said, 'No.'
"It's a lose-lose situation, especially if I go out there and miss," Anthony said. "Now we need to put this game behind us and go out there and play hard. I think this is our wake-up call."
But that wasn't enough to top Houston, which snapped a four-game losing streak behind 17 points from Alston, 15 from Bogans and a rugged, six-point, four-rebound night from Dikembe Mutombo.
Karl said Boykins and Najera would not play Wednesday but would likely be ready for the playoffs next weekend. ... Howard's previous season high was 30 points, Jan. 20 against Chicago.
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