Nuugets 96, Clippers 93

LOS ANGELES (AP) - The Denver Nuggets needed a big defensive stop near the end of the game as much as they did Allen Iverson's 17 fourth-quarter points. And the eight-time All-Star provided that, too.

Iverson made a critical steal that set up his clinching free throws after Linas Kleiza hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 15.8 seconds to play, and the Nuggets beat the Los Angeles Clippers 96-93 Saturday night.

Carmelo Anthony had 23 points, helping Denver win its fifth straight.

"It's a good thing that at the end of the season we're concentrating on defense, because that's going to win basketball games for us going into the playoffs," said Iverson, who finished with 34 points. "We understand that we can score points, but our whole thing right now is stopping people on the defensive end and letting the offense come to us."

There was plenty at stake for both clubs, who are among four teams that came in separated by three games in the race for the last three Western Conference playoff berths. The victory helped Denver tie the Lakers for sixth place and gave the Nuggets the advantage over the Clippers in any scenario in which the teams finish tied

"I think the sky's the limit for us," said Iverson, who has four NBA scoring titles but no championship rings. "We can keep that sixth spot if we just concentrate on one game at a time and not look past any teams. These games that we've been winning, we just have to leave them behind, take the positive things and try to carry them over to the next game."

Corey Maggette scored 24 points and Elton Brand had 22 points and 13 rebounds for the Clippers, who squandered a 15-point second-quarter lead - and a chance to go over the .500 mark for the first time since Feb. 5. Forward Tim Thomas left the game with 5:47 left in the second quarter after spraining his right wrist.

"It is a setback," Brand said. "It's definitely disappointing, especially when you had a game like this, leading the majority of the game. Now we have to go on the road and do what we have to do."

The Clippers held a 74-66 edge after three quarters. Quentin Ross converted a layup into a three-point play 33 seconds into the fourth, but Los Angeles didn't make another field goal until Jason Hart's layup with 6:56 to play.

The Nuggets, coming off their best defensive effort of the season in a 75-71 win over the league-leading Dallas Mavericks, pulled even at 83-all with 11 points from Iverson in a 5:22 stretch - including a 3-pointer with 3:58 remaining.

"I just kept hitting shots, and after a while it just felt like everything was going in," Iverson said. "I was running the pick-and-roll with Melo, and they're so scared of him that they were just showing out on me and I was able to turn the corner getting to the lane."

Los Angeles went back in front by four on Chris Kaman's hook shot with 1:43 left, but Iverson made a layup and added a 16-footer after a shot clock violation by the Clippers, tying the score at 91. Brand's layup regained the lead for Los Angeles with 44 seconds to go, but Kleiza responded with his clutch shot from in front of the Clippers' bench.

Coach Mike Dunleavy called his final timeout at that point. On the ensuing inbounds play, Maggette turned at the free throw line to drive past Anthony, but Iverson stripped him of the ball and converted two free throws at the other end for a three-point lead with 4.5 seconds left.

"Melo did a good job of sending him (Maggette) to all the help, and I was over there on the weak side," Iverson said. "He came my way, and I just stuck my hand in there and got a piece of the ball to knock it away."

Maggette said, "The play was not executed the right way. It was something I did wrong. Turnovers killed us tonight. I put that one on myself, because I had seven."

Out of timeouts, Maggette was forced to throw a Hail Mary pass downcourt from the other baseline. Hart outleaped Iverson for the ball in front of the Denver bench, but missed a tying 3-pointer from the left corner as time expired.

The Nuggets pulled ahead 63-62 with 4:43 left in the third as Iverson drained a fadeaway 3-pointer from the left sideline that left him lying on his back and the Clippers' 11th sellout crowd of the season groaning.

Notes: The Clippers were 47-35 last season and advanced to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 30 years. They need to go no worse than 5-2 the rest of the way to give the franchise a winning record in consecutive seasons for the first time since coach Jack Ramsay coached the Buffalo Braves to three straight winning seasons from 1973-74 through 1975-76. ... Clippers season ticket holders in the front row of Staples Center don't pay nearly as much for that location as Jack Nicholson and Dyan Cannon do for Lakers games. But they are getting $300 per-game increase to $1,500 per seat next year - and they had to put down a $48,000 deposit by last Thursday or risk losing their location.