Because barely at half-strength, Denver still surprised the now fully stocked Spurs.
Ty Lawson had 22 points and 11 assists, and squared up from 19 feet to sink the game-clinching jumper with 11.9 seconds left, putting the injury-laden Nuggets past Ginobili and the Spurs 99-94 on Sunday night.
Still without leading scorer Danilo Gallinari and Nene -- and not to mention backup guard Rudy Fernandez -- the Nuggets won their third in a row with a short-handed cast that became just the third team to beat San Antonio at home.
"It's huge. Huge for us," Lawson said. "Especially having three rotation players and two starters out. But we're starting to jell."
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Tony Parker led the Spurs with 25 points. Ginobili scored eight in 24 minutes, playing his first game in two weeks after straining a stomach muscle. He missed a month before that with a broken hand, which made Sunday just the 10th game this season for San Antonio's star playmaker.
Gary Neal had a chance to tie, but his 3-pointer rimmed out in the final second. Ginobili said he felt "more explosive" then when he returned from the broken hand last month, but still admitted he was playing cautious.
"We've been playing really well, then I come back and we lose. So it's not a great feeling," Ginobili said.
The Nuggets even somehow left more banged up than they arrived. Center Timofey Mozgov, who had already been a game-time decision because of a sprained ankle, hurt his foot again in the third quarter after landing awkwardly while coming down for a rebound.
Mozgov hobbled to the locker room but returned to the bench after having the ankle re-taped. The Nuggets said he was available to return, but the 7-footer never came back.
But even down yet another body, the Nuggets hung on. Tim Duncan cut Denver's lead to 95-94 on a dunk with 29.9 seconds left, but Lawson answered right back on the next possession with his 19-footer that put the game away.
"I told him during a timeout that he's going to have to make a shot," Nuggets coach George Karl said. "He played great."
Ginobili shot 2 of 5 from the floor, with both makes being 3s. He also had five assists and four rebounds, and played little like his usual, electrifying self.
Even though the Spurs were finally full-strength again with Ginobili -- backup point guard T.J. Ford finally returned from a stubborn pulled hamstring this week, too -- they weren't totally healthy. Duncan played with flulike symptoms but still lasted 24 minutes, finishing with 14 points and nine rebounds.
Yet despite being ill, Duncan showed some unusual spark in one of the game's biggest highlights. Facing up Chris Andersen in the second quarter, Duncan brushed back Andersen after swiping him in the face with the ball, then charged hard past him for a rare dunk.
Duncan, however, also had his poor moments. He missed two free throws in the final minute that would have cut the lead to one, but redeemed himself the next time down with a dunk set up by Parker.
"They're just very active. They do a lot of shifting, they get in the paint," Duncan said. "They make us kick the ball; we got some pretty good shots at times, we weren't able to knock them out."
So decimated by injuries are the Nuggets that all their starters except for Mozgov logged at least 32 minutes. Lawson played 38 and was 7 of 16 from the floor.
Second-place is hardly where anyone expected the Spurs to be while Parker and Duncan -- minus Ginobili -- played alongside their least-experienced supporting cast in their decade together. Yet San Antonio went 18-9 without their All-Star and leading scorer from a year ago, and now have the second half of the season to tinker with a whole roster.
Presuming, that is, that the Spurs can stay healthy.
Their first game fully stocked was a rocky one. The Nuggets, who've been without Gallinari for a month with an ankle sprain, looked the entire game like the far livelier team despite their injury woes.
The Spurs had lost at home just twice this season, and were stunned to find themselves down 16 in the second quarter. Parker brought San Antonio back with 10 points during a 16-6 run that cut the lead the 49-45 at halftime, while cold-shooting Denver made just one field goal in the last eight minutes of the half.
- Spurs C DeJuan Blair was hurt with a bruised left knee just 17 seconds into the game after colliding with Mozgov under the basket. He returned to the game, but played just five total minutes.
- The Nuggets avoided a three-game sweep at the hands of the Spurs.