Jack Dempsey, Associated Press
DENVER — It sure looked familiar: a furious last-minute comeback ending with a 3-pointer coming up short.
Only this time it was Russell Westbrook misfiring and begging for a whistle, instead of J.R. Smith.
The Denver Nuggets avoided a first-round playoff sweep with a 104-101 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday night behind Ty Lawson's career playoff-high 27 points.
Denver still faces a huge challenge as it attempts to become the first NBA team to overcome a 3-0 series deficit. Game 5 is Wednesday night in Oklahoma City.
"It's an opportunity to do something special," said Arron Afflalo, who limped around after the game with a sore right knee and a troublesome left hamstring.
"I'm not going to sit here and say we're going to beat you four straight times, but I will say we can beat you."
With Denver leading by 10 and just under 3 minutes remaining, the crowd sensed the Nuggets' first victory over the Thunder in a half-dozen tries this month.
But this is the young and talented Thunder, and they refused to roll over and conserve energy for another crack at the Nuggets 48 hours later.
Highlighting a wild final minute, Kevin Durant hit a long 3-pointer with 4.1 seconds remaining to pull Oklahoma City within two. After Raymond Felton hit one of two free throws, Westbrook had a chance to tie it, but his 35-foot runner at the buzzer was off target as Kenyon Martin flashed in front of him.
Westbrook glanced at the officials with an incredulous look as no foul was called. He was just as animated as Smith was when he didn't get the whistle on his 3-point miss at the end of Denver's 97-94 loss Saturday night.
"Ahhh, I just missed the shot," Westbrook said in the locker room 20 minutes later, after he cooled off.
That was a far cry from the reaction Smith had two nights earlier when he felt he was fouled by James Harden. Asked about it afterward, Smith said he might have made the shot had Harden not mauled him.
Being up 3-1 may have been one reason for Westbrook's diplomatic tone.
"They just got the upper hand tonight," Westbrook said.
The Nuggets sank some clutch free throws down the stretch — Felton hitting 4 of 6 in the final 23 seconds — and received a key performance from reserve Smith, who drained three 3-pointers and finished with 15 points.
Danilo Gallinari found his rhythm and scored 18 points, all in the second half, and Martin added 13 as the Nuggets finally corralled the Thunder despite 31 points from Durant and 30 from Westbrook.
"They have great players on the offensive side of the ball. We were trying to limit them to one shot," Martin said. "We did an excellent job of finding (Durant); he made some tough shots."
So did Westbrook, who scored his 30 points on 30 shots.
"He took how many?" Martin asked when told of Westbrook's shooting night. "We'll take that. If he can get 30 up and miss 18 of them, we'll take that. We'll take that every day."
The Nuggets 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 in crunch time.
Despite shooting just 31 of 44 from the line, the Nuggets sank eight straight during one key stretch in the fourth quarter, then made 6 of 8 in the final 23 seconds.
"That's been our Achilles' heel this whole series," said Lawson, who was 9 of 9 from the foul line. "I'm comfortable. I've played in big games, so I embrace the opportunity."
Staving off elimination gave the Nuggets a boost.
"It's big for our confidence," Smith said. "It proves to ourselves that we can hang with his team."
Durant said the Thunder got something out of this game, too.
"We kept fighting," he said. "That's one thing we can take out of this. We kept fighting."
NOTES: Thunder F Serge Ibaka finished with 13 points and 14 rebounds for his second straight double-double. ... Durant has scored 20 or more points in nine of his 10 career playoff appearances. ... The Nuggets are trailing 3-1 in a playoff series for the 10th time in franchise history. ... The Nuggets had just eight turnovers, while the Thunder had 15.
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