Duncan powers Spurs to big win over Nuggets

DENVER (Reuters) - The San Antonio Spurs turned up the defensive pressure to beat the Denver Nuggets 104-85 on Saturday, giving them a chance of avoiding the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the playoffs.

The win, powered by Tim Duncan's 18 points and 10 rebounds, moved the Spurs into seventh place in the Western Conference, a position that would enable them to avoid the Lakers in the opening round.

"This was huge," guard Manu Ginobili, who had 15 points and seven assists, told reporters. "Basically, if we lose this game, we're settling for eighth."

The Spurs had been put in that position with an untimely 107-99 loss to Memphis on Friday.

"To come back in the second game of a back-to-back was impressive to me," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "I really enjoyed that.

"We had a pretty good night, and Denver had one of those nights where it just wasn't working," the Spurs coach said. "They played tonight like we played last night."

The loss could prove costly for the Nuggets, who are locked in a battle with Dallas and Utah for the number two seed behind the Lakers in the West.

Despite shooting poorly, the Nuggets pulled within five points of the Spurs early in the fourth quarter.

Then the Spurs went on a 13-0 run to break open the game.

"Every loss at this point of the season is costly," said Nuggets guard Chauncey Billups, who had a game-high 27 points.

Denver was called for four technical fouls in the second half and Carmelo Anthony was ejected after picking up his second. He finished with 19 points.

The loss also dropped Denver into a tie with Utah for the Northwest Division lead.

"We've just got to win a couple games," said forward Kenyon Martin, who returned to the lineup after missing 18 games and grabbed 10 rebounds. "We'll see. All we've got to do is go out and win."

(Reporting by Gene Cherry in Salvo, North Carolina; Editing Peter Rutherford; To query or comment on this story email sportsfeedback@thomsonreuters.com)