Preview: Nuggets (39-20) at Suns (37-24)

Suns 101, Nuggets 85



The Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets will collide tonight in US Airways Center both on the tail end of a back-to-back, with each team coming off losses to top-notch Western Conference teams. The Suns fell yesterday afternoon on the road against the Spurs, while the Nuggets are coming off a six-point loss to the Lakers in Los Angeles.

But aside from a mediocre fourth quarter, the Suns played well enough to win in San Antonio and have been particularly impressive in the month of February. If March is anything like February, Phoenix Suns fans should be expecting a lot of wins and big-time performances from Amare Stoudemire.

STAT posted 23.9 points and 9.9 rebounds in 11 games in February and most recently exploded for 41 points and 12 rebounds against Tim Duncan and the Spurs. But Amare wasn’t the only standout during the last 12 games. In 12 starts Robin Lopez has posted 12.9 points and 7.1 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in only 25.8 minutes per game. Lopez has enormously exceeded expectations this season after returning from injury and is a huge reason for the Suns’ month-long surge.

Jason Richardson has picked up his play as of late, aside for the costly botched dunk attempt. After scoring only 13.1 points per game in January, J-Rich kicked it up a notch in February, averaging 17.2 points and 6.3 rebounds per contest.

These individual performances, along with team defense and rebounding, resulted in a 9-3 record in February. But it’s a new month, and Amare and the Suns will turn their attention to the Nuggets tonight, who currently sit 5 1/2 games behind the Lakers for the top Western Conference spot.

The last time these two teams squared off, the Suns left the Mile High City with a 12-point victory, which ended up being one of the Suns’ most complete games all season long. Amare went for 20 and 17, no Nuggets player scored more than 15 points and the Suns limited Chauncey Billups and Kenyon Martin to a combined 10-of-29 shooting.

Limiting Billups will again be a key to the game, especially since he averaged the 10th most points in the NBA during the month of February with 24, a total that also made him the league’s highest-scoring point guard this month. But aside from Billups, and of course Carmelo Anthony, the Nuggets have been struggling a bit of late to the tune of a 6-4 record in their last 10 games.

The Suns, on the other hand, are 7-3 in their last 10, with their only losses coming to the Spurs, Mavericks and Trail Blazers. Phoenix is playing some of its best basketball of the season right now, and a win against the Nuggets would move the Suns only two games behind Denver.

With the logjam that is the Western Conference playoff picture, any win over a conference foe is significant. The Suns are playing about as well as they have all season, and beating the conference’s No. 2 seed for the second time in a row could be another step toward the upper half of the Western Conference playoff picture.

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