OKLAHOMA CITY — The Denver Nuggets grabbed control of where they’ll start the NBA playoffs.
Kevin Durant can’t say the same about his hold on the league scoring title.
Ty Lawson scored 25 points, Kenneth Faried added 13 points and 10 rebounds, and the Nuggets beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 106-101 on Wednesday night to ensure they won’t be the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference playoffs.
Another win and Denver will be the sixth seed and face the Los Angeles Lakers to start the postseason, after starting the month clinging to the last playoff spot in the West.
“You do this in the month of April and a lot of things and a lot of pressure and a lot of stress have been on you, I think that it shows that our guys have a pretty big heart and have some good character,” coach George Karl said.
Durant scored 32 points to extend his tenuous lead in the NBA scoring race, leaving Kobe Bryant in need of 38 points in his season finale Thursday night against Sacramento to claim his third scoring title and prevent Durant from becoming the seventh player to win three in a row.
Durant is averaging 28 points, and Bryant 27.9.
LeBron James, who has sat out two of Miami’s last three games to rest, would need to score 83 in his finale to have a chance.
“I probably won’t watch. If I don’t win the scoring title or MVP or whatever, it doesn’t mean that I didn’t have a good year by my standards,” Durant said.
“To think back on everything I’ve done this season, I’ve gotten better. I’ve improved in every area I wanted to improve in. I scored a few points but I think as a defender and as a facilitator, I got better.”
Durant said he considered it probably his best NBA season yet.
“If I don’t win any awards, that’s cool with me. I just want to grow as a player and hopefully they start to come later in my career,” he said.
The Thunder had little to gain except momentum in their finale, and had rested Durant and the other starters in the fourth quarter of a close game against Sacramento a night earlier. Oklahoma City held on to win 118-110.
This time, Durant returned with just over 8 minutes left after Denver had scored eight straight points to go up 88-86 following Lawson’s driving layup. Durant had scored only 25 points by then — meaning Bryant would have needed only 32 to win the title.
Just after returning, Durant tied the game with a two-handed dunk off an alley-oop from Westbrook.
But Lawson’s free throw with 4:11 remaining put Denver up 96-95, and the Nuggets wouldn’t trail again.
Durant negated a possession with Oklahoma City trailing 100-99 when he was called for an offensive foul. Faried grabbed Arron Afflalo’s missed shot and dunked it with two hands before Russell Westbrook missed a 3-point attempt for the tie.
Corey Brewer then got around Derek Fisher and banked in a critical 18-footer as the shot clock expired to bump the lead to 104-99. The Thunder had one last chance to tie, but Fisher missed a 3-pointer from the left wing with 9 seconds left.
“It felt like a playoff game for us,” Faried said. “We just wanted to make a statement that we could stay with anybody and play with anybody.”
If the Nuggets lose at Minnesota and Dallas wins at Atlanta on Thursday, Denver would fall to No. 7 and have a rematch with Oklahoma City. The Thunder beat Denver 4-1 in the first round of last year’s playoffs.
Otherwise, defending NBA champion Dallas and Oklahoma City will meet in a rematch of last season’s Western Conference finals.
“We’re going to go after tomorrow’s game,” Karl said. “I’m not saying we want the Lakers over Oklahoma City. We just want to be playing as good of basketball as we’ve been playing.
“We’re not going to play anybody big minutes tomorrow night but we’re going to go in and try to win that game tomorrow night.”
Westbrook finished with 30 points, and Serge Ibaka had 15 points and four blocks for Oklahoma City. Both had injury scares in the second half, with Ibaka leaving the floor with a hip contusion and Westbrook coming down hard on his left wrist after trying to block one of Brewer’s shots.
Afflalo added 15 points for Denver, which had seven players in double figures and won for the fifth time in its last six games.
“Everybody feels that we’re playing our best basketball right now,” Karl said.
“I don’t want to give anything back. We’ve made good steps and good strides and played good basketball,” he added. “Win or lose, it’s just to continue to play a good brand of basketball that we can be proud of and see what happens.”
The Thunder played .500 ball down the stretch, losing seven of their last 14 games.
“No matter how you go into the playoffs, there are no guarantees in the postseason,” Fisher said. “Would we have liked to have won all of our games down the stretch and be playing better? Of course. But that would not have guaranteed us any more or less success once we started this weekend.”
Notes: The Thunder unveiled their Northwest Division championship banner before the game, waiting until a divisional opponent played at Chesapeake Energy Arena to do it. Oklahoma City clinched its second straight division title on April 8. … Durant said he was proud of achieving his preseason goal of playing in all 66 games. It’s the second time in his five-year NBA career that he played every game. … The only players to win at least three straight scoring titles are George Mikan, Neil Johnston, Wilt Chamberlain, Bob McAdoo, George Gervin, and Michael Jordan. Chamberlain and Jordan are the only ones to have more than three in a row, with both winning seven consecutive titles.