With Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili all sidelined Tuesday night, the Denver Nuggets took advantage for a 104-96 win over the San Antonio Spurs after frittering away most of a 17-point lead.
Michael Finley also took a breather for San Antonio. Minus their three big stars, the subs executed the Spurs' system as usual.
"Of course it was a test," Carmelo Anthony insisted. "We were hoping that the Big 3 would play tonight. That's what we scouted for, that's what we worked on the last couple of days. But it didn't happen."
Ginobili has a bruised hip, and coach Gregg Popovich said he decided to give Duncan and Parker the night off in Denver following the Spurs' overtime win at Golden State Monday night. Same with Finley.
"I wasn't expecting him to come in and sit all them guys down like he did. But he did," Anthony said. "We had to come out and take care of business."
It was just as big a struggle as the Nuggets expected it to be with the Big 3 playing instead of watching.
"I thought they did a fine job hanging in the game and never giving in," Popovich said of his sub-studded lineup. "Played a lot of guys that probably aren't used to playing together, but they did a fine job. I was proud of them."
And Nuggets coach George Karl was angry, calling his team selfish and suggested his players toyed with a group of backups they should have put away early.
"We were fortunate. We still have a tendency in messing around with the game," Karl said. "It's kind of come back in the last couple of weeks. We've still won most of the games but we should have attacked this game with a professional attitude and an intensity, and probably should have gotten the game over by the fourth quarter.
"San Antonio showed a lot of heart and a lot of character and scared the hell out of us."
Anthony scored 35 points but he had to come back into the game with 8:47 left and the Nuggets clinging to an 80-78 lead. His return had an immediate impact as he spaced the floor and the Nuggets suddenly had open looks and went on a 9-0 run.
Again, San Antonio's subs fought back, pulling to 98-94 with two minutes left on a 3-pointer by Roger Mason, who led the Spurs with 26 points.
"We knew if we could get stops, we were moving the ball pretty well, we would give ourselves a chance," Mason said. "Without the Big 3, it was a different game for us, but we knew if we could get stops we had a chance."
'Melo countered with a free throw and a jumper, and the Nuggets escaped.
"We just needed to slow down and calm down," Anthony explained.
Anthony, who spent the last three days getting used to practicing again after missing several weeks with a broken bone in his right hand, had said the Spurs' visit was a barometer for the Nuggets, who fancy themselves conference contenders now that they have Chauncey Billups at the helm.
A win over San Antonio would validate that notion, Anthony argued. But the Spurs that he really wanted to go against weren't the ones on the court.
Denver wasn't at full-strength, either. Kenyon Martin missed the game with tonsillitis and strep throat, and Billups sprained his right ankle in the second quarter and didn't return, which played a factor in the Nuggets' sloppy play in the second half.
X-rays on Billups were negative and the team said he's day to day. Anthony said he was confident Billups would be back in the lineup Wednesday night at New Orleans as the Nuggets embark on a season-high eight-game road trip.
Karl is hoping that Martin just has a 24-hour bug and will be available against the Thunder.
"When I saw him this afternoon, about six o'clock he had a 103 degree temperature," Karl said. "There's a chance. I think Kenyon will understand, after watching us play tonight, we need him."
Asked if he'd ever been this down after a win, Karl said: "I'm not mad, I'm happy now. I'm happy we won. I do realize in the NBA it is a trait of good teams winning playing bad. Going on a road trip after this performance scares the hell out of me."
San Antonio fell to 7-4 in the second of back-to-back games this season. ... Nene had 17 points and 11 boards for Denver. ... Spurs G Malik Hairston scored his first points in the NBA and finished with 12 on 6-of-8 shooting. He also grabbed his first five rebounds and first steal. ... The Nuggets won the series 2-1, their first series win over San Antonio since going 5-1 against the Spurs in 1987-88.