NEW YORK — Emmanuel Mudiay's first game at Madison Square Garden was going so poorly that he apologized to his coach at halftime.
The rookie had nothing to be sorry about by the end.
"It was a big fourth quarter for me. I think probably top-three fourth quarter," said Mudiay, who had nine assists. "As long as we get the win, that's the main thing. Even if I was passing the whole time, I'm making plays. But I was taking what the defense gave me and that's what happened tonight."
Former Knicks forward Danilo Gallinari and Will Barton had 19 points each to lead the Nuggets, who won for the third time in four games. But it was Mudiay, who was just 2 for 12 through three quarters, who delivered nearly all the points during an 11-2 spurt that put the Nuggets in control.
"I thought Emmanuel Mudiay was terrific," Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. "Made some huge plays for us down the stretch. Nine assists, zero turnovers, for a 19-year-old rookie point guard is outstanding."
Kristaps Porzingis had 21 points and 13 rebounds for the Knicks, who have lost five straight and nine of 10 since they were 22-22 and looking like a realistic playoff team.
Carmelo Anthony returned to face his former team after missing a game to rest his sore left knee, finishing with 21 points, seven assists and six rebounds. But he shot just 7 for 19, missing a 3-point attempt with the Knicks trailing by three and about 10 seconds left.
"Again, we put ourselves in position where we're hoping every single thing is perfect at the end of the game when we're putting ourselves down by 10, 12, 15, 18 points to start," said Knicks coach Derek Fisher, whose team trailed by 19 in the first half.
Two days after charging back from a 16-point deficit after three quarters by outscoring Chicago 42-21 in the fourth, the Nuggets won this with their defense. They held the Knicks without a basket for nearly 5 minutes, enough time for Mudiay to give the Nuggets the cushion they needed.
Mudiay, who told Malone at halftime he was settling for too many jumpers, knocked down a tying one after the Knicks led for the final time midway through the fourth quarter, and he followed that with a 3-pointer to put Denver ahead for good at 91-88.
He added two reverse layups as Denver pushed the lead to 97-90 with 2:43 to play.
"Late in that game he had some great drives and more importantly unbelievable finishes over their length at the rim," Malone said.
Anthony and Porzingis both missed all five shots in the first quarter and Denver led 31-20 when Gallinari hit from halfcourt at the buzzer. The Nuggets extended their lead to 57-38 when Barton had consecutive dunks.
Nuggets: Forward Darrell Arthur missed his third straight game with a sore left quadriceps. ... The Nuggets opened a New York back-to-back, visiting the Brooklyn Nets on Monday.
Knicks: The Knicks fell to 11-6 when playing on Super Bowl Sunday. ... Forward Lance Thomas missed his second straight game because of a concussion.
Anthony said his knee felt better after rest and was told the pain he's feeling following last season's surgery is normal. He even got an MRI recently to make sure.
"I've talked to kind of everybody that I need to talk to in the technical staff, other people who've been in my situation who had this same procedure, other doctors, just trying to get advice for what I'm dealing with," he said. "And everybody says it's part of the recovery, it's part of the rehab."
Fisher's response to comments by Sacramento point guard Rajon Rondo, who seemed to rule out the Knicks in free agency by saying he didn't think the triangle was the offense for him.
"You can't ask a guy that wasn't very successful playing against it whether or not he wants to come play in it," Fisher said. "So that's his opinion, that's fine. He doesn't play for us. So we're not concerned about his opinion about us at this point."
While with Boston, Rondo went 1-1 in the NBA Finals playing against Fisher and the Lakers, who ran the triangle.
Nuggets: Visit Brooklyn on Monday.
Knicks: Host Washington on Tuesday.