Rockets nip Nuggets

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DENVER – Juwan Howard scored a season-high 31 points and the Houston Rockets handed the playoff-bound Denver Nuggets their third straight loss by scoring the final 11 points in an 86-83 victory.

Chuck Hayes had a steal and dunk for the go-ahead score with 13.4 seconds left as the Rockets, a team going nowhere, 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.”

Watching the entire fourth quarter from the bench for the second straight game were Carmelo Anthony and Andre Miller.

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 him on the floor in the third and coach George Karl decided to sit both Melo and Miller, who finished with seven points and seven assists.

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. Houston trapped the Nuggets in the backcourt, and that led to Hayes’ steal and the go-ahead bucket with 13.4 seconds left.

Thus added to a painful week for the Nuggets, who look anything like the division champions they are. This debacle came one day after Karl said he was angry and that it was “hard to evaluate the lack of commitment in so many areas of basketball” after a blowout home loss to Sacramento.

The Nuggets, who clinched the Northwest Division last week, might simply be resting up for the playoffs or might be in a genuine slump.

Either way, they’ve got a bunch of improving to do before the playoffs – against either the Clippers or Grizzlies – and only one more regular-season game to do it, Wednesday at Seattle.

Kenyon Martin played most of the fourth quarter on his hurting knee and finished with 10 points and six rebounds. Reggie Evans had 12 boards and DerMarr Johnson had 12 points.

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.

Notes: Karl said injured Earl Boykins and Eduardo 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.

AP-ES-04-17-06 2353EDT

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