DENVER -- The Denver Nuggets began the night without three starters and a backup. They ended it by watching rising star forward Danilo Gallinari hobble out of the Pepsi Center on crutches in a walking boot after a dispiriting 99-90 loss to the Houston Rockets.
"Nervous. Nervous that I'm going to be out for a while," Gallinari said of his reaction to getting hurt in the third quarter, when he stepped on a defender and badly twisted his left ankle.
X-rays revealed a chip fracture of the foot.
"I was surprised," said Gallinari, who will get further medical tests Tuesday to confirm the diagnosis.
"Hopefully, I can recover fast," Gallinari said.
Gallinari, who recently signed a four-year, $42 million deal that makes him the cornerstone of Denver's young nucleus, said the doctors and trainers didn't give him any indication about how long he might be sidelined.
"I have some more scans tomorrow and they will tell me more tomorrow," he said as he made his way slowly to the players parking lot.
Chase Budinger had 16 points on the strength of five 3-pointers, his last one giving Houston a seven-point lead with a minute left that sealed the Rockets' fourth road win in 12 tries.
Gallinari had 14 points when he went down with 9:38 left in the third quarter. He was replaced by Rudy Fernandez, who also scored 14 points to top Denver's makeshift lineup.
Gallinari hopped downcourt in pain after stepping on Chandler Parsons' foot, twisting his ankle. Parsons was whistled for the shooting foul and Gallinari stayed in, sank both shots but then waved for the Nuggets to take him out as he hobbled back down the court.
"It's tough," teammate Ty Lawson said. "It's just tough to see him go down. He's a tough player, he normally would get back up from that. You know it's serious when he leaves the game."
Added Nuggets power forward Al Harrington: "It's the season, man. It's the season. It ain't going to stop for nobody. If Gallo's out, somebody else has to step up and fill that hole until he gets back."
The Nuggets were already hurting before tip-off.
Post player Nene (left heel), guard Arron Afflalo (left ankle, right big toe) and center Timofey Mozgov (left ankle) were all out Monday night, along with backup forward Corey Brewer following the death of his father.
"Him going out hurts them badly, especially with all the other guys being out," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said of Gallinari going down. "The injury bug has just bit them in the behind and it's hard."
Despite losing all those players and watching Kosta Koufos foul out, the Nuggets were in it until the end.
"If we would have pulled it out, it would have been an incredible win for us," Nuggets coach George Karl said. "But it's still a very disappointing loss. I mean, no one's going to feel sorry for us except ourselves, and if we feel too sorry for ourselves, we're not going to bounce back.
"It's a loss. On our home court. We can't have many more of them. We've already had five now."
Asked if it's becoming clear that the lockout-shortened season is affecting players' health, Karl said: "I don't think there's any question you could study that and analyze it that way. I know my team was tired tonight. There's no question of the residual effect of the three games in a row."
Karl was also disheartened to learn of former Nuggets star Chauncey Billups' injury Monday night. Billups, a Denver native who recently had a monster game in his first trip back to the Pepsi Center since getting caught up in the Carmelo Anthony trade a year ago, sustained a possible left Achilles injury in the Los Angeles Clippers' 107-102 overtime win at Orlando.
"If it's torn," Karl said, "it will probably be difficult for him to come back."
The Nuggets hung tough despite the spate of injuries. It was 49-all when Gallinari went down and Houston led by a point heading into the fourth quarter.
The Rockets hit six straight 3-pointers in the second half, three by Budinger. After Lowry's 3 made it 94-86, the Nuggets trimmed it to 94-90 but Harrington missed two foul shots with 1:21 left and Budinger sank a 3 at the other end to make it 97-90.
Scola scored seven points during a 17-8 run Houston used to close out the first half and take a 47-45 lead into the break. The Nuggets had to feel fortunate to be so close after missing all nine of their 3-pointers and turning the ball over 13 times to Houston's four.
"I think we lost the game in the first half and not the second half," Karl said.
Overall, they went 3 for 22 from behind the arc and missed 14 of 33 free throws.
"A combination of missed free throws and missed open 3s and 20 turnovers, it's tough to win a game," Karl said.
Especially with Gallinari in the training room.
"He was a threat to us," Scola said. "He went out and they had to show us different looks. It changed the game, yes."
And, depending on the severity of his injury, maybe the Nuggets' season, too.
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