If the Nuggets win tonight, they're assured a third-seed in the Western Conference and a likely first round matchup against the Brandon Roy-less Blazers. If they lose? We'll have to wait until the conclusion of Wednesday's NBA action to find out.
The Nuggets have had trouble with four teams this season: the Sacramento Kings, Milwaukee Bucks, San Antonio Spurs and...Phoenix Suns. So perhaps it's fitting that in a season chock-full of tests - including a series of devastating injuries, no mid-season trades made and the loss of the team's head coach to cancer - the Nuggets have saved their biggest test for last.
The record shows that the Nuggets are down 2-1 in the season series against Phoenix, but the Suns could have easily been going for the season sweep tonight. The Nuggets lone victory over the Suns came on December 12th when a tired and weary Suns team, playing the second of a back-to-back, were a Nene no-call on a Steve Nash drive away from stealing a win at Pepsi Center. The other two games - one at Denver, one at Phoenix - have been Suns walkovers.
It makes no sense to me whatsoever that the Suns have the Nuggets' number. You'd think that an aging team with little size and no bench would be a squad that the Nuggets could feast on. But that's not the case. In both of the Suns victories over the Nuggets, it's been the Suns defense of all things that has done the job, holding the Nuggets to 97 points in Denver and a mere 85 points (tying the Nuggets second-lowest scoring output of the season) in Phoenix when they last met.
But if you look historically at Denver vs. Phoenix in the George Karl Era, a deeper picture of ineptitude against the Suns at Phoenix emerges. Believe it or not, the Nuggets have never won at Phoenix under Karl. Sadly, Karl won't be managing the Nuggets sideline on Tuesday night as we collectively hope he returns in time for the second round of the playoffs (if there is a second round). Could interim head coach Adrian Dantley be the man to break the Valley of the Sun curse?
To do so, Dantley needs to come up with a Spurs-esque game plan: slow the game down, pound it inside on offense, play rough and tumble defense and rebound, rebound, rebound. You know, like a playoff game that AD's Detroit "Bad Boys" would have participated in back in the day! The Suns haven't lost much lately, but when they have it's because their opponent was able to keep the scoring low and the physicality high. It's no accident that the Suns only recent losses were to the Spurs, Lakers, Mavericks, Jazz, Thunder and Bucks. Teams that know how to play stingy defense, get mean and rebound when they have to. As the Denver Post's Mark Kiszla aptly pointed out in his latest column, when it comes to our Nuggets "where's the anger?"
Based on the Nuggets prior performances against the Suns, their knack for inconsistent and soft play as of late and the fact that they'll be playing the second of a back-to-back, much of Nuggets Nation is dubious of their chances to best Phoenix on Tuesday night. But regardless of their record and recent history, this Suns team has never scared me nor should it scare the Nuggets.
The Nuggets are big enough and tough enough to take down the Suns. If only they believed in themselves as much as I do...
Photo courtesy of AP: David Zalubowksi