The Denver Nuggets have defeated the Phoenix Suns five consecutive times, including margins of victory of 34, 19 and 17. In the last meeting between the teams two weeks ago, the Suns at least kept it close, but 16 turnovers led to 26 Nuggets points and Arron Afflalo torched the Suns for 30, including five converted 3-pointers, in a 105-99 Nuggets win that put a serious dent in the Suns playoff chances.
Five Suns wins and an emergence into the 8th spot in the Western Conference later and they face the Nuggets again, with three games remaining and the thinnest of margins for error. The Nuggets have owned the Suns recently, with their athleticism, depth and aggressive defense causing the Suns all kinds of problems. That simply has to end or, frankly, the Suns don't deserve to make the playoffs.
Keys will be crisp offensive execution, avoidance of turnovers and playing strong transition defense to slow down a Nuggets team which is the league's highest-scoring at 103.5PPG.
George Karl's Nuggets play fast, they take chances on defense to create turnovers, and they leave perimeter shooters open. Denver is 24th in the league in opponents' FG% and dead last in the league in opponents' 3-point %. They can certainly be scored upon but win shootouts since they hit an excellent .471 from the field themselves.
In the first two games of this season's series between the teams, Grant Hill and Steve Nash sat out the first in the middle game of a B2B2B, and the Nuggets smacked the Suns 109-92 in a fairly sloppy game in which the teams combined for 44 turnovers. Hill missed this month's game as well with a knee injury and the latest word from Alvin Gentry is that there is a "good chance" he'll pay today.
If Hill is able to go today and is healthy enough to move effectively, it would provide a needed boost to the Suns defense as he could shadow Nuggets scorers Danilo Gallinari or Afflalo.
Robin Lopez created quite a stir with his hard foul on Blake Griffin, leaving Clippers fans and players angry over his flagrant-2 take-down, but there is still no word from the league office on additional punishment for Lopez so he's expected to play today. Many NBA observers condemned Lopez for his actions but Lakers Pau Gasol explained earlier this month how Griffin tends to incite his opponents:
"When you make a great play, obviously there's a lot of emotions and I understand the excitement of it," Gasol said. "But at the same time, you have to be respectful too. Otherwise, you probably will instigate retaliation or a bad, violent reaction. So you have to be careful with that. But that's just me."
I, for one, was slack-jaw flabbergasted watching TNT's post-game and hearing Barkley rant about how the Clippers needed an enforcer to stand up to big, bad, intimidating teams. Who, the Suns? It's true, they are becoming a tougher team and players like Lopez, Sebastian Telfair, Jared "WHAT'S UP?" Dudley and rookie Markieff Morris aren't afraid to mix it up
The hard foul from Lopez, and Dudley getting in Griffin's face were more symbolic, though. Winning a tough, physical, crucial late-season game over a quality opponent was the real display of toughness. Well, Suns, the time to man up again is right now, fighting for your season against a team that's beaten you down every time since November of 2010.
From the Denver Post:
Nuggets coach George Karl in a No. 6 state of mind: "Anytime you play Phoenix, you have to control the engine, which is Steve Nash," Karl said. "Nash's quarterbacking, he's still great. I thought earlier in the year they were struggling with their personality, but they have figured themselves out. I think they are a team that's a lot like us — they have Nash as their stud — but they have a lot of good players and you've got to be ready for a lot of different personality."
Nuggets Danilo Gallinari staying "positive" through slump: In Gallinari's six games since returning from a broken thumb, the small forward has averaged only 10.8 points while shooting just 33.3 percent from the field. While still recovering from the fractured left thumb, Gallinari is playing through pain in his right wrist too."I fell down a couple of times in the Houston game and I hurt it, but it's getting better," Gallinari said after Thursday's practice. "It will be good."
Nuggets at Suns: Controlling Steve Nash There sure isn't much left to say at this point in the season. The Nuggets will need to control the pick-and-roll game and minimize the damage by Marcin Gortat (14 points and 14 rebounds vs. the Clippers). The Nuggets haven't had issues scoring against the Suns this season, so stopping their offense is the obvious key to this one.
From AZ Central:
"I've just got to finish harder. At some point, when you feel really comfortable with the shooting and left hook and right hook from outside, then all of a sudden you're trying to be finesse. I just have got to finish that."
Gortat entered Thursday night's game with 47 dunks this season, ranking him 34th in league.
The Phoenix Suns begin today with a firm hold on 8th place in the NBA's Western Conference. If the Suns win 2 of their last 3 games, with one of those being Utah on Tuesday, then the Suns will have won the right to extend their season into the playoffs.
Yet, the "playoff predictors" have the Jazz overtaking the Suns by virtue of an easier schedule. The Suns own the tiebreaker, so the Jazz HAVE to finish with a better record. The Jazz play 3 home games to close out their season - hosting the Howard-less Magic, the Suns and then the Trailblazers.
If the Suns finish 3-0, they're in.
If the Jazz finish 3-0, they're in because that means the Suns could do no better than 2-1.
If the Suns finish 2-1, they're in as long as the Jazz go 2-1 as well. The simplest way to accomplish this is to beat the Jazz on Tuesday. But even if the Suns lose to the Jazz, as long as the Jazz lose to either the Magic or Blazers and the Suns beat the Nuggets and Spurs, then the Suns still make the playoffs.
You've heard all this before.
For maximum comfort level, the Suns should just go ahead and beat Denver today while the Jazz lose to the Magic. And then when the Suns beat the Jazz on Tuesday night, the suspense will be over.
One team you don't see mentioned anymore: the Houston Rockets.
Unfortunately for Rockets fans, and Dragon lovers, the Rockets have suddenly hit a wall. Just over a week ago, the Rockets were 32-25, in 6th place in the West, and seemed certain to make the playoffs.
Now? They've lost 6 consecutive games (Jazz, Suns, Nuggets x2, Mavs and Hornets) to drop a full game OUT of the playoffs with only 3 to go. Sure, it's possible they win their final 3 games, while Utah and Phoenix go 1-5 collectively. But that seems even more unlikely than than their earlier hold on playoff position they've frittered away. The Rox have an easy Golden State game today, but then have to play AT Miami, with the Heat fighting for playoff positioning, and then host the suddenly-scary Hornets to close out the season. Expect the Miami loss to put an official end to the Rockets' playoff hopes.
It's really just the Jazz and Suns fighting for the right to play the Thunder or Spurs in round one. Which seems funny, in a way. Round 1 has been the last 2 weeks already, hasn't it?
The Phoenix Suns took the court at U.S. Airways against the Los Angeles Clippers fighting for their playoff lives. A loss would have made securing a playoff spot a long shot, while a win would put them back in 8th place in the Western Conference.
It was a single-digit game throughout the contest, and came down to the final seconds. Considering the struggles the Suns have gone through in fourth quarters this season and the fact that the Clippers were led by Chris Paul, one of the best fourth quarter players in the NBA, Suns fans couldn't help but feel a bit worried. Chris Paul with a one-point lead in the final minutes and the ball in his hands is a scary sight indeed, and the following graphic shows why.
However, in what turned out to be a stroke of genius, Phoenix head coach Alvin Gentry made a defensive substitution down one with 2:2 seconds left in the game, sending in back-up point guard Sebastian Telfair to replace shooting guard Shannon Brown. Steve Nash could not afford to leave the floor as the Suns didn't want to have to burn timeouts to get him back into the game on offense, but Nash attempting to defend Paul most likely would not have ended well for the Suns. So, knowing the Clippers employ a small backcourt themselves, Gentry felt he could play Nash and Telfair together.
Telfair's aggressive brand of defense allowed him to slow down Paul just enough, while Nash -- who had played poorly for most of the game -- kicked it into another gear, recording four points and setting up Jared Dudley for a wide open 3-pointer in the final two minutes.
The two point guards lifted the Suns to a 93-90 victory. Make the jump to see how it happened.
*All screen-caps courtesy of mySynergySports.com
Bassy checked into the game at the 2:21 mark following a Suns turnover by Brown with the Suns down 84-83.
The Clippers got the ball into Paul's hands, and Kenyon Martin proceeded to set multiple screens for him. Paul danced around the screens, running down the clock, before he finally made his move.
Martin wen to set another screen, and Bassy jumped over the top so as not to get caught on it, while Gortat hangs back rather than hedging on the screen. Recognizing this, an with the clock running down, Paul attacked.
As you can see in the screen-cap above, jumping over the screen put Bassy out of position. At this point, Paul has him beat. But Gortat is still between him and the basket.
With Gortat protecting the rim and Bassy on his tail, Paul takes a big jump stop to create space and then fades back for the jumpshot, which you can see above.
The defense was not bad by any means and the Clippers ended up with a pretty tough shot, but Paul was just too good on this play. 86-83 Clippers, 1:59 remaining.
The Suns answered with their trademark play, a one-five high pick-and-roll.
As you can see here, Blake Griffin fails to hedge and instead momentarily doubles Nash, leaving no one on Gortat. Nash goes left and attacks the double off of the screen, taking the defense with him. Gortat rolls hard to the basket and Jared Dudley's defender, Caron Butler, has to leave Dudz and drop down to protect the rim.
The Clippers had all five defenders on one side of the court, leaving the back side wide open. Dudz rotates up to the wing for the spot-up 3-pointer.
Butler is too late to contest and Dudley sinks it. Game tied at 86-86 with 1:45 left.
The Clippers, to the surprise of absolutely no one, put the ball in Paul's hands again. Kenyon Martin sets a couple of screens, but Paul chooses not to attack and runs the clock down. He waits for the isolation on Telfair before setting Bassy up, crossing him over and blowing by him.
Beat, Bassy tries to reach in and steal the ball from behind, but he's called for the foul, putting Paul at the line for a pair of free throws. He hits both, and the Clippers regain the lead, 88-86, with 1:23 remaining.
The Suns counter with a high screen by Frye for Nash. Frye doesn't get the screen set, but he does enough to allow Steve to get past Paul.
After he gets past Paul, the lane is wide open and Steve takes it all the way to the basket. Griffin is able to recover in time to contest the layup, however. Knowing Griffin is bearing down on him and what an explosive leaper he is, Steve decides to put a little extra air under his layup.
And by a little, I mean that he somehow was able to kiss it off the very top of the backboard. Not even Dwight Howard would have gotten to that one. Game tied at 88-88, 1:15 remaining.
Paul again walks the ball down the court, running down the shot clock. Griffin and Martin each attempt to set a screen for him, but Paul ignores them both. With five seconds left on the clock, Paul puts his head down and tries to get to the basket. Bassy is right with him, though, step for step.
Gortat steps out to help on Paul and Paul has to force an incredibly difficult fade-away with Gortat right in his face. It comes up short, and leads to a a fastbreak opportunity for the Suns.
Gortat sees Bassy is the nearest player to the ball and takes off down the court. Bassy tracks down the board and tosses the ball over the defense to Gortat, who had beat everyone down court.
Gortat catches the ball in stride and goes up for what looks like a one-handed dunk attempt. However, Randy Foye was able to chase him down and block the shot. Fortunately for the Suns, a foul was called. Gortat hit one of two free throws to put the Suns up 89-88 with 48.4 seconds left.
As the Clippers are trying to get the ball into Paul's hand, Telfair is playing very aggressive defense. As Paul dribbles toward the top of the key, a foul is called on Telfair.
I'll just post this picture and leave it at that. Paul hit both free throws to put the Clippers up 90-89 with 42.5 seconds left.
However, Steve Nash answered for the Suns and drew a foul himself. Both shots were good and the Suns went ahead 91-90 with 25.9 seconds left.
Once again, Paul didn't seem to have any sense of urgency as he took his time and ran down the clock before even heading towards the basket, despite his team being down. Martin set three different screens before Paul decided to attack, but when he did he was able to get past Gortat.
As strong and crafty as Paul is, at this point it appears as if it is going to be a Clipper bucket. But Gortat challenges Paul and forces him to adjust his shot in mid-air, and Telfair comes from behind to send the ball into the first row.
The ball goes out with 7.7 seconds on the game clock and five seconds on the shot clock. The Clippers run a good play and get Mo Williams open at the top of the key, but it rims out and on the rebound a foul is called on Blake Griffin who was fighting for position with Channing Frye.
Frye steps up to the line with just two seconds left in the game, and calmly knocks down both shots to give the Suns a 93-90 lead.
The Clippers set up their desperation play and toss it down court to Griffin, who rises above the three Suns around him to make the catch.
Griffin comes down, spins around, spots up behind the arc ...
And clanks it off the rim. Game over, Suns win.
This was a heck of a game, a great fourth quarter, and an epic final two minutes. The Suns won this game with their defense down the stretch, and were able to overcome their fourth quarter struggles behind their two point guards, Bassy Telfair on defense and Steve Nash on offense.