DENVER – The spark plugs energized the Denver Nuggets.
Ty Lawson scored a career playoff-high 27 points and fellow speedy point guard Raymond Felton hit four clutch free throws in the final 23 seconds to help Denver beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 104-101 on Monday night as the Nuggets avoided a first-round sweep.
The series resumes Wednesday night with Game 5 in Oklahoma City.
"This is the biggest game of my life," Lawson said. "I just wanted to come out and just play strong."
The Nuggets still face a huge challenge in trying to become the first NBA team ever to overcome a 3-0 series deficit, but they finally found a formula for beating their nemesis, and Lawson was front and center.
"He was great in the pick and roll," Kevin Durant said. "He made some tough shots. Ty's a great scorer. He can do a lot in that pick and roll."
Danilo Gallinari (18 points) and J.R. Smith (15) also hit clutch shots down the stretch for Denver, which had lost five straight times to Oklahoma City this month before finally figuring out All-Stars Durant and Russell Westbrook and their amazing supporting cast.
"J.R., he had a bunch of big 3s, Gallo started knocking down 3s," Lawson said. "When they do that, it stretches the court, so it's easier for me to attack. When they knock down shots, they make me a lot better."
In denying the Thunder their first playoff series win since moving from Seattle in 2008, the Nuggets went to the hoop better than they had all series, spread the court better and relied on the smooth touch of Gallinari, who totaled just 13 points in the previous two games but finished with 18 Monday night to counter Durant's 31 points and Westbrook's 30 points — on 30 shots.
For the first time all series, nobody really stepped up to help the Thunder's All-Star duo.
The Nuggets also started doing something they hadn't been able to since trading away All-Star Carmelo Anthony along with Chauncey Billups: hit their free throws — at least enough of them.
Despite shooting just 31 of 44 from the stripe, the Nuggets sank eight straight during one key stretch in the fourth quarter as they grabbed control and then sank 6 of 8 in the final 23 seconds.
"That's been our Achilles' heel this whole series," said Lawson, who sank all nine of his foul shots. "I'm comfortable. I've played in big games, so I embrace the opportunity."
Felton's pair of free throws with 23 seconds left gave Denver a 100-96 lead and snapped Oklahoma City's 9-1 run. Westbrook's layup made it a two-point game again and Felton was fouled again, this time missing one of two shots, leaving the Nuggets ahead 101-98 with 15 seconds left.
Westbrook misfired a 26-footer with 8 seconds left, and Lawson sank two free throws for a seemingly safe 103-98 lead, but Durant swished a 3-pointer with 4 seconds left, making it a two-point game again.
After a timeout, Felton was fouled with 3.5 seconds remaining and missed his first free throw before sinking his second.
Westbrook's desperation 3-pointer was off-target.
"We kept fighting," Durant said. "That's one thing we can take out of this. We kept fighting. We were down nine with a minute and a-half left, cut it down to two and it was a free-throw game from there. Those guys make some big shots."
The Nuggets are hitting just 69 percent of their free throws in this series.
But Lawson got to the line nine times thanks to heeding the admonition of coach George Karl to attack the hoop early and often to create his own scoring opportunities instead of trying to get everyone else going.
"He got a lot of free throw attempts," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said.
That was a byproduct of his stepped-up aggression.
"We have to get Ty and Raymond as many minutes in the game, attacking their defense, accept they're going to block some shots," Karl said. "Their interior defense is going to make some good plays, but that's who we are. Ty was pretty special in that area."
With all the Thunder's bigs, Lawson said the Nuggets' challenge was setting screens higher, "so I have a chance to run at them."
Relying on teamwork and a heavy dose of pick-and-roll offense, the Nuggets went 18-7 following their blockbuster trade of Anthony and Billups to the New York Knicks.
The Nuggets won a playoff game without Anthony for the first time since May 19, 1994, against Utah. They also gained a measure of pride in doing one better than Melo, whose Knicks were swept by Boston in the first round out East.
Oklahoma City went nearly four minutes spanning the third and fourth quarters without scoring and the Nuggets built a 78-69 lead. But they couldn't shake the Thunder, who weren't done until Westbrook's shot bounced off the rim as the buzzer sounded.
"I think we showed great spirit at the end," Kendrick Perkins said.
For once, it was the Nuggets who survived a furious finish and they hope they've found something they can take to Oklahoma City, too.
"We probably found confidence," Lawson said, "because everybody was counting us out."
Notes: The Nuggets were last swept out of the playoffs by the Lakers in 2008. ... Thunder F Serge Ibaka finished with 13 points and 14 rebounds for his second straight double-double.