DENVER – Desmond Mason scored 21 of his season-best 26 points after halftime in the New Orleans’ Hornets 102-95 win over the Denver Nuggets, who were without their star forward and their leader Wednesday night.

Nuggets coach George Karl was suspended two games without pay for publicly criticizing officials after the Nuggets’ loss to New Jersey on Monday night. His suspension began Wednesday night and he’ll miss the team’s trip to Phoenix on Friday night.

Assistant coach Scott Brooks, who went 0-2 in place of a suspended Karl to start the season, was without the services of forward Carmelo Anthony, who sprained his left ankle Monday night.

Mason, who is averaging 7.4 points this season – a figure pumped up by his 24 points in his previous two games – had just five points at halftime but scored 12 in the third quarter to stake the Hornets to an 82-77 lead entering the fourth quarter.

Mason and Speedy Claxton (19 points) each had buckets that capped a 9-0 run and put New Orleans ahead 86-77, and the Nuggets never got closer than three after that in losing their second straight game at the Pepsi Center.

Mason’s biggest play came when he tipped an errant shot to a teammate for an offensive rebound with 21 seconds left and the Hornets clinging to a 96-93 lead.

Chris Paul subsequently was fouled and sank both free throws for a 98-93 lead.

After a bucket by Andre Miller, who scored a season-best 33 for Denver, Nuggets guard Earl Watson quickly fouled Claxton and they got their arms tangled.

After the officiating crew of Ken Mauer, Marc Davis and Zach Zarba huddled, they whistled Claxton for a technical foul and P.J. Brown sank the bonus before Claxton hit both of his free throws for a 101-95 lead with 17 seconds remaining.

J.R. Smith added 16 points for New Orleans, and Marcus Camby scored 16 for Denver, but he missed 10-of-17 shots and Kenyon Martin was just 2-of-9 from the field for four points.

The Hornets led 55-54 at halftime behind 13 points each from Smith and Claxton.

Brooks and Hornets coach Byron Scott both had plenty of opportunity to gripe about the officiating in the third quarter, when there were several apparent fouls that weren’t whistled. But neither coach complained.

The Nuggets lost both of the games Brooks coached after Karl was suspended at the start of the season for improper contact with a prospect in Milwaukee in May.

Denver general manager Kiki Vandeweghe said two suspensions in one month for Karl was disconcerting.

“Well, it’s always a concern. The first one I think was very costly for us. We had a close game in San Antonio and lost at the buzzer to Los Angeles,” he said. “And you know two tough games now, it looks like Carmelo may not play and with Nene being out, we need all the help we can get.

“And George is a very, very good coach and obviously we need him on the bench.”

Notes: Denver swingman Greg Buckner sat out with a swollen left knee. He’s day-to-day. … Nuggets rookie F Linas Kleiza got his first career start and scored 7 points.

AP-ES-11-30-05 2334EST

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