Preview: Nuggets (53-28) at Suns (52-28)

Suns 123, Nuggets 101



PHOENIX — The Suns’ official Big Dance doesn’t start until the weekend, but going along with that college basketball analogy tonight starts the beginning of their conference tournament.

Basically, the Suns have already clinched a so-called at-large berth, but how they fare tonight hosting Denver and Wednesday in Utah will affect where they’re seeded just like how a conference tournament affects where a college team ends up getting placed in the NCAA Tournament.

If the Suns win this theoretical tournament they will be the No. 3 seed, no questions asked, with the Dallas Mavericks guaranteeing Phoenix can go no higher Monday night with a win over the Clippers. If they lose both games they will be the No. 5 seed.

So long as Utah defeats Golden State tonight, the Suns will be the No. 4 seed against whichever team they beat this week if they split the two games. However, if Utah loses tonight and then the Suns beat Denver and lose to Utah, Phoenix could still fall to fifth in a three-way tie situation.

“The last three games are going to be really like playoff games anyway because you’re playing for position,” said Suns head coach Alvin Gentry. “They’ll be real physical games. There’s going to be runs and peaks and valleys, and we’re going to have to be able to just endure all of that and find a way to win the game. That’s what you have to do when you’re playing playoff basketball.”

Yes, the playoffs have already started, and the Wild West is starting to snap into focus. With a hat tip to ESPN’s John Hollinger for spelling out all these scenarios, the Thunder’s loss to the Brandon Roy-less Blazers on Monday clinches the No. 8 seed for them and a matchup with the Lakers.

Dallas will be No. 2 unless Utah wins out and they lose to San Antonio in the finale (in which case Utah would be second), and the Mavs will be playing the Spurs in the 2-7 game unless the Spurs beat Dallas in the finale and Portland loses at home to Golden State a night after the Warriors host the Jazz. So basically, barring upsets, we’re certainly looking at a Dallas-San Antonio rematch.

The Suns can obviously be anywhere from the Nos. 3-5 range. If they win out and nab the No. 3 seed, it’s likely they will be facing a Brandon Roy-less Portland squad, or possibly a banged-up Roy playing with a torn meniscus. That’s certainly far favorable to any other scenario, especially since they might be getting Dallas in round two and no Lakers until the conference finals. Yes, the playoffs have certainly started.

If the Suns don’t get the No. 3, they will either be facing Utah or Denver in the 4-5 game with the Lakers likely waiting in Round 2. Which path sounds more favorable to you?

The team I want to most avoid is Utah, as the Jazz are the West team favored most by the Hollinger Odds. To do that the Suns must beat a Denver squad tonight that they have played pretty well against all season, losing a close game on a botched call, scoring a resounding victory in Denver with Carmelo out, and using a zone to decimate the Nuggets in the second quarter of a home win.

Also, head coach George Karl is away from the team as he recovers from cancer and forward Kenyon Martin is just working his way back from a knee injury, making the Nuggets one of the more beatable teams in the West in my opinion.

But the Suns aren’t thinking about potential playoff matchups quite yet. They have put themselves in the position to earn home-court advantage in the first round and potentially a No. 3 seed with a torrid second half. Now they just have to finish the deal with two more regular-season wins to put themselves in a solid spot in the playoffs.

“It’s a great place to be in, and it’s going to be a lot of fun Tuesday,” Steve Nash said. “We’re just going to be solid, focused and play a good game.”

And 1

Marc Stein ranks the Suns No. 3 in the final edition of his power rankings, tops in the West. The Suns are currently No. 5 in the Hollinger rankings. … If the Suns win tonight, they will finish with fewer than 10 home losses for just the third time in the past 15 seasons. … The Suns have locked up esteemed trainer Aaron Nelson, according to KTAR, with a four-year deal. No Suns player has a guaranteed contract for that length of time.

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