DENVER -- Instead of a game-winning shot, Carmelo Anthony came through with a block at the buzzer.
The feeling was just as exhilarating.
"Feels good to do something else, though, other than hitting a game-winner," said Anthony, who scored 31 points. "That felt just as good as hitting the game-winner. It was a game-winner."
That it was.
With the win, Denver moved a full game in front of Utah for the Northwest Division lead. The Nuggets also remained in contention for the second seed in the Western Conference, staying in a tight race with Phoenix, Dallas and the Jazz.
"For us, our playoffs started a week ago," Chauncey Billups said. "We've got to play ugly, we've got to fight, scratch and claw to try to get out [of the regular season] the best way we can. That's absolutely what we did."
The slumping Lakers gave Bryant the night off to rest a swollen right knee and an aching right index finger. Los Angeles has now dropped four of its last five games, but remains in control for the top seed in the West. The Lakers need just one more win in their last four to wrap it up. Either that or a Denver loss.
The Nuggets took advantage of the Bryant-less Lakers, racing out to a 15-point lead in the third quarter. But it didn't last as the Lakers came roaring back to reclaim the lead.
However, Nene's free throw with 1:22 remaining put Denver ahead for good.
Not that there wasn't plenty of drama at the finish. For instance, the deflection call the Lakers felt went the wrong way.
But Billups broke it up, with the ball glancing off Fisher's fingers before going out of bounds.
The officials ruled it Nuggets ball, and upheld the decision after glancing at the monitor.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson didn't agree with the call.
"It was our ball, but they had already called it Denver's ball," Jackson said. "[Billups] hit Fisher's arm and Fisher's arm knocked it out. Normally they make that call as an adjustment."
Smith made one of two free throws to extend the lead to 98-96. Fisher had a chance to tie, but couldn't get the ball over Anthony's outstretched arms.
Anthony twisted his right ankle as he landed on Fisher's foot. As the Nuggets celebrated, he hopped around the court in pain. Anthony said it wasn't that bad and he'd be in the lineup Saturday night against San Antonio.
It's the second injury in as many days for Anthony.
However, Anthony showed no effects from the knock he took one night earlier in Oklahoma City. The All-Star forward rammed head first into Kevin Durant's chest in the third quarter, momentarily blacking out. Anthony returned in time to help the Nuggets rally for the win.
Smith was on target most of the night, hitting 5 of 11 shots from 3-point range. His long jumper late in the second quarter was a significant one, sending him past Michael Adams for the franchise's all-time lead in 3-pointers made. Smith celebrated by skipping down the court.
Before the contest, Jackson hinted he may try to rest Bryant with the playoffs looming.
The Cavaliers took a similar approach earlier Thursday, resting LeBron James against Chicago with the league's best record already secured.
The team understood the decision.
"We want him ready for the playoffs, that's the bottom line," said Lakers forward Pau Gasol, who finished with 26 points and 13 rebounds. "We've got to play hard and win ball games anyway."
Any chance the Lakers were playing mental games with the Nuggets by holding out Bryant?
Anthony quickly dismissed that notion.
"I'm pretty sure Kobe was here tonight and wanted to play," Anthony said. "He was in the back, hoping and wishing he had that ball at the end. I would be doing the same thing."
Nuggets F Joey Graham didn't play in the second half after spraining his left ankle. ... Nuggets F Kenyon Martin hopes to return as soon as Saturday from a left knee injury that has sidelined him for the last five weeks. ... The Lakers play in Minnesota on Friday night. Jackson said it's Bryant's decision whether he'll play.