Preview: Suns (16-7) at Nuggets (16-7)

Nuggets 105, Suns 99





PHOENIX — The Suns and Nuggets head into tonight’s tilt in the Mile High City with identical 16-7 records, but if I didn’t know any better the Suns may as well be the Minnesota Timberwolves the way they are expected to lose this second game of a back-to-back set.

That’s because playing in high altitude is tough enough on normal occasions but even more difficult when coming off a late hard-fought game the night before. You might remember the Nuggets throttling the Lakers by 26 in a similar back-to-back situation (thanks to an eight-point LA third quarter) after Los Angeles blew out the Suns the previous evening in Southern California when the Suns were playing for the second consecutive night.

Including that contest, the Suns have struggled with the second game of a back-to-back all year. Phoenix is 1-4 in such games, losing to the Lakers (twice), Cleveland and Orlando; the Suns have also come from behind to beat 5-18 Philly.

Once again, the Suns are playing one of the top teams in the league hours after their last game, with that previous game being a draining 106-103 victory over the Magic this time around. I mean, I was at Steve Nash’s locker on the day of this game (a couple minutes after midnight on Saturday), and then Nash and the Suns had to fly into Denver, get in around 3:30 a.m. and play a rested Nuggets squad that had Friday off.

I suppose it’s just a case of what goes around comes around as the Suns did have two full days off before playing a Magic team that suffered a grueling come-from-ahead loss the night before in Utah.

Anyway, it might not be so bad if the Nuggets take Phoenix like they did the Timberwolves — doubtful with Denver coming off a couple tough road losses to Charlotte and Detroit — as 3-20 Minnesota is the only visiting squad to win in the Pepsi Center all season. The Nuggets are fabulous in their building, going 22-3 in their past 25 home games.

Accuscore’s game predictions don’t seem to be giving the Suns much of a chance either, giving Denver an 81.7 percent chance at a win and a 57.4 percent chance of a double-figure victory.

But there is a reason they play the games, and these teams do sport identical 16-7 marks that tie them with Dallas for the No. 2 seed in the West, a seed that could be a reasonable goal for the Suns if they keep playing as well at home and play more like the November road team that went 8-3 away from Phoenix and less like the squad that’s dropped four straight roadies in December.

Speaking of this home/road thing, how ridiculous is it that the Suns have played almost four times as many road games as the Lakers? I mean, seriously, who makes this schedule? Suns head coach Alvin Gentry joked before Friday’s game that the Suns will just play the schedule that the computer randomly generates for them and not worry about anything else.

For Denver, 9-1 at home, it all starts with Carmelo Anthony, averaging a league-best 30.3 points per game. Chauncey Billups (17.5 ppg), J.R. Smith (14.7), Nene (13.3) and Kenyon Martin (10.2) all average double figures and then the Birdman is a terror off the bench. The Nuggets rank third in offensive efficiency (110.0 points per 100 possessions) behind the first-place Suns (111.5 pp100) and Atlanta, so this team can definitely score.

As the Suns continue a brutal chunk of their schedule, Nash feels relieved to some extent that Phoenix gutted out last night’s win to stop the team’s losing streak at two games and prevent the kind of snowballing losing streak that crippled the Suns last March.

“(Friday’s) win gave us a little bit of latitude,” Nash said. “We should go out there without a ton of pressure and try to get our shots. We should go in there feeling optimistic and see what happens. We’ve got to have a good attitude and give ourselves a chance.”

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