HOUSTON -- The Houston Rockets on Wednesday night clinched what long ago seemed inevitable, but that formality didn't undermine the pleasure they took in the feat.
Harden paired 31 points with 10 assists and scored 15 consecutive points to keep the Rockets (53-25) afloat in a tense fourth quarter. Harden drilled two 3-pointers during his run, including one with 56.4 seconds left for a 106-101 lead.
Houston clinched the third seed in the Western Conference. The Rockets surged into that position by winning 20 of 22 games starting on Dec. 1 and took the time to laud their exceeding expectations following a tumultuous 2015-16 campaign.
"We're just fortunate to be able to prove all the doubters wrong," Rockets guard Patrick Beverley said. "Everybody said we wouldn't even make the playoffs, and we're the third-best team in the NBA. That's something we should be proud of."
Nene added 16 points off the bench. With Harden and reserve guard Lou Williams contributing seven rebounds apiece, the Rockets finished with a plus-five rebounding advantage against the bigger, brawnier Nuggets.
"Patrick, Trevor -- those guys rebounded the ball excellent tonight," Harden said. "That's what we're going to need down the stretch. That helps our defense."
Five Nuggets scored in double figures, paced by forward Danilo Gallinari (23 points) and guard Gary Harris (17 points). Center Nikola Jokic tallied 12 points, 19 rebounds, nine assists and five steals for Denver (37-41), which dropped one game behind the Portland Trail Blazers for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West.
Houston shot 68.4 percent in the first quarter, including 5 of 9 from behind the arc. By the midpoint of the second quarter, the Rockets had extended an 11-point lead to 50-33, reaching that point on Capela's alley-oop dunk through Jameer Nelson's foul.
Capela missed the free throw and the Nuggets immediately initiated their slow climb into contention. Gallinari and rookie guard Jamal Murray combined to score the ensuing 14 points for Denver, with Murray converting a reverse layup to cut the deficit to 57-47 with under two minutes left in the half.
"We were down 17 and we were able to come back; but, against a team like this, it's tough to get down like that and come back," Gallinari said. "I thought it was a good game, but we have to now move on to the next one."
Denver had effectively seized the momentum and the Rockets rendered aid by shooting 3 of 16 on 3-pointers over the second and third periods. The Nuggets opened the third quarter with a 13-4 run to close the gap to one point and later surged ahead 73-71 on a second-chance basket by Harris at the 4:42 mark.
Yet, when Houston needed a surge, its offense responded with a 9-2 spurt to cap the period. Denver often answered but not with the volume of points needed, shooting 39.4 percent overall while missing 31 of 38 3-point attempts.
"You come into Houston after three games in four nights against one of the better offensive teams and hold them to 42 percent from the field and only 29 percent from 3. The defense was phenomenal," Nuggets coach Mike Malone said. "We could not make a shot."
NOTES: Rockets G Eric Gordon returned to his reserve role after starting the previous five games. Gordon averaged 36.3 minutes during that stretch and Houston coach Mike D'Antoni wants to better regulate his minutes in advance of the postseason. Gordon averages 30.3 minutes off the bench. ... Nuggets G Jameer Nelson (calf) and F Darrell Arthur (knee) returned to action after missing the past two and three games, respectively. ... Rockets F Ryan Anderson could return Friday after missing six games with a right ankle sprain. If Anderson practices Thursday without pain, he will play against the Detroit Pistons.