The Denver Nuggets aided their chances of making the playoffs at the beginning of April by taking advantage of Dwight Howard's absence from the Orlando Magic lineup.
Even with a postseason berth wrapped up, don't expect the Nuggets to go easy on the Howard-less Magic during Sunday night's rematch at the Pepsi Center.
Denver (35-28) matched a franchise record by clinching a ninth consecutive playoff berth with Saturday's 118-107 win in Phoenix. The Nuggets made nine straight postseasons from 1981-82 to 1989-90.
Ty Lawson had 29 points and 10 assists during his team's eighth victory in 12 games, a stretch that includes a 104-101 win over Orlando on April 1.
Howard missed that game with back spasms and is now out for the year after having surgery to repair a herniated disc and remove fragments Friday.
"I think we've been operating with the expectation that we wouldn't have him back," coach Stan Van Gundy said. "I don't think this was unexpected."
The Magic (36-27) are 3-6 without their All-Star center and three-time NBA defensive player of the year, who was averaging 20.6 points and a league-best 14.5 rebounds.
Orlando scored a combined 13 points over the final 7:52 of regulation and overtime during a 117-107 defeat in Utah on Saturday. The Magic gave up at least 100 points for the fourth time in five games.
"We just cannot guard," Van Gundy said. "I don't think it is that our guys are not trying, I don't know what it is, but we cannot guard anyone. We can't guard anyone ... Our defense is disturbing to say the least."
Orlando is all but locked into the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference as it trails Atlanta by two games with three remaining for both teams, and leads New York and Philadelphia by three.
Denver, meanwhile, is tied for sixth in the West with Dallas, which has just one game remaining. The Mavericks hold the tiebreaker, but the Nuggets have three contests left.
"We are going to try to win all three of them. There won't be any rest going on here," coach George Karl said. "We are not in that mode. We are into getting better and coming together. It is a young team that will have to learn how to win in the playoffs. On the job training, but it has been done before."
Lawson will try to help the Nuggets with another high-scoring performance. The point guard averaged 24.5 points on 58.3 percent shooting over his last four games and is 9 for 14 from 3-point range, including a 5-for-5 performance in Saturday's win.
Lawson had a team-leading 25 points during the win in Orlando and Arron Afflalo chipped in 22. Jameer Nelson had a season-high 27 for the Magic during the loss and averaged 20.3 over his last four games after scoring a team-best 23 during Saturday's loss.
Denver has split its last four meetings with Orlando but has won seven of the last eight home matchups. A 111-94 victory on Dec. 14, 2010, was the Nuggets' second in a row at the Pepsi Center.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
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