When the Phoenix Suns last visited Denver way back on Valentine's Day, both Grant Hill and Steve Nash were held out of the game by Alvin Gentry. At the time, the Suns were in the midst of their first back-to-back-to-back of the season, with the game at Denver being the second of three. Now, with Phoenix on a three-game winning streak and just 1 game back of Denver for the 8th and final playoff seed, Nash's return to Denver looms large.
Denver: 29-25 (15-12 home)
Streak: Lost 1
Phoenix: 28-26 (12-15 road)
Streak: Won 3
Denver: Danilo Gallinari (fractured left thumb) is out. Wilson Chandler (strained groin) is day-to-day. Corey Brewer (broken jumper), Timofey Mozgov (broken confidence), "Anre" Miller (broken defense) and JaVale McGee (broken brain) are all probable. Rudy Fernandez (fired into sun via cannon) is out.
On February 14th, the Nuggets pasted the shorthanded Suns, 109-92. Chris Andersen recorded his best game of the season, with 16 points on 6-9 shooting, 7 rebounds and 6 blocks. However, Chris has recorded five consecutive DNP-CDs - his last game coming against the Minnesota Timberwolves on March 25th with just five paltry (or should I say, poultry) minutes on the court. After the Nuggets were out-rebounded by the smaller New Orleans Hornets on 41-32, I hope that George Karl can find a way to give Andersen some minutes, now that the Nuggets have returned to The Can.
The Suns went on to lose all three of their back to back to back set - at Golden State, at Denver, and home versus Atlanta back in February. So much for that decision to rest Nash and Hill. This time, however, the Nuggets won't be as fortunate. Despite Hill being held out again, the Suns should have the services of the Methuselah-like Nash dishing the ball to his teammates, which will be a struggle for the often porous defense of the Nuggets' backcourt.
The challenge for the Nuggets is to limit the damage done by Nash. At 38 years old, the Canadian is averaging 13 points and 11 assists per game. The man is tireless. He is perhaps the most creative passer the NBA has seen since John Stockton and will punish your team for being out of position on defense - something Denver is especially prone to this season. I would not be surprised to see the rangy Corey Brewer and Arron Afflalo take turns defending Nash, as their length can make his passing angles much more difficult than can the shorter Ty Lawson and slower Andre Miller.
Despite turning the ball over 24 times on Feb. 14th against the Suns, the Nuggets had six players in double figures (Kenneth Faried, Afflalo, Lawson, Al Harrington, Andersen, and Rudy Fernandez) and two players each with 9 points (Brewer, Kosta Koufos). Two players were held out of the game - Nene and Timofey Mozgov (Gallinari was injured - sound familiar?).
Minus Nene and Fernandez and plus Wilson Chandler (if he plays) and JaVale McGee, the Nuggets squad facing Phoenix tonight looks much as it did on February 14th. The recipe for success now is the same as it was then - control the glass, take good shots in the paint and limit Phoenix's fast break opportunities.
The Suns are fighting to claw their way into the Western Conference playoffs, winning 14 of their last 20 games, including Wednesday in Utah. They're just one game behind Denver for the 8th seed in an incredibly tight playoff race, and Denver must not take this Suns team lightly.
Nuggets of Note:
- Nash is shooting 54% from the field, 39% from 3, and 88% from the foul line, in his 15th season in the NBA, and with over 1,138 games played. Truly a machine.
- Andersen recorded 6 blocks the last game against Phoenix. With McGee in the lineup, the Nuggets should be able to punish a shorter Suns team every time they take it to the paint.
- Although Phoenix is just 18th in the NBA in shooting threes (34%), expect Phoenix to light it up from beyond the arc. Denver is now ignominiously the worst team in the NBA at three point defense (allowing 38% from beyond the arc). If Nash and Michael Redd start getting hot from distance, they could bury the Nuggets.
- Say what you will about Nene. It's clear that the Nuggets desperately miss his reliable post presence on both the offensive and defensive end. Both McGee and Mozgov are struggling mightily and Koufos simply is not as talented.
- Despite their up-and-down play, the Nuggets are just *three* - yes, three - games out of the 4th seed in the West. If the Nuggets can put up just some consistent effort over their last 11 games, it's still theoretically possible for them to secure home court advantage in a first-round playoff series.