PHOENIX — Before the season, the general consensus on the Phoenix Suns wavered between expecting them to miss the playoffs altogether for the second consecutive year or sneak into the postseason with one of the final spots.
Instead the Suns will be charging into postseason play with home-court advantage after throttling the Denver Nuggets 123-101 in one of their most impressive victories of the season Tuesday night.
“It’s a great accomplishment really,” Suns guard Steve Nash said after the Suns’ fourth wire-to-wire victory of the season. “We should be proud, but we have a lot to play for still with one game left in the season.”
In combination with Utah’s win in Golden State, the Suns are now guaranteed a top-four seed. They are technically tied for third with Utah at the moment, but that tie will be broken Wednesday when the Suns visit the Jazz.
A victory in Utah would make the Suns the No. 3 seed. They would face Portland unless the Blazers lose to the Warriors and the Spurs beat the Mavs (in which case they would get San Antonio).
A loss in Utah would tie the Suns with Denver, making them the fourth seed in a 4-5 matchup against the Nuggets by virtue of Phoenix winning the head-to-head series between the teams.
“At the start of training camp we talked about making the playoffs after we missed the playoffs the previous year,” said Suns head coach Alvin Gentry. “After we did that and they put a check mark by our name we said our next goal would be to see if we could play well enough to get home court for a series. I’m happy we got that done now. We have to reassess our goals tomorrow and try to see what our next goals will be.”
Judging by Tuesday’s efforts, Gentry and the Suns should feel free to aim high, as the Suns played their best game of this season in this one. Talk about peaking at the right time.
The Suns jumped out to an 18-2 lead and kept pouring it on from there, leading by as many as 28 and allowing the lead to go back to single digits only at 31-23.
Phoenix throttled Denver on the boards 52-34, hit 14-of-24 threes (58.3 percent) and got production both from the stars (26 and 8 for Amare, 18 and 10 for Nash) and the bench (five guys with at least eight points).
“Everyone knew what it was,” Nash said. “Everyone knew it was a big game and the implications. I think it was treated as such.”
Some home games you just know that the Suns have that extra pop that will almost ensure a victory. You could see that from the start as the Suns scored on their first five possessions and kept rolling from there.
The Nuggets, meanwhile, unsuccessfully tried to switch everything in the early going and saw Nene and Kenyon Martin both get into foul trouble. Their effort lacked, and it didn’t seem like they cared much at all about their seeding.
“It’s funny, I was talking in the locker room about how coming off a back to back, they’re going to try to punch us in the mouth early,” said Nuggets guard Chauncey Billups. “They’re going to try to get the game over in the first quarter and we need to take good shots and not play into their hands early in the game.”
Added Grant Hill, “We knew they played last night, so we wanted to come out with a lot of energy. Everybody was ready. This team was ready and focused.”
Denver threatened just once with an 8-0 run early in the second half that cut Phoenix’s lead to 13, but the Suns answered by getting three points on their next three possessions to stretch the lead back to 22.
It was that kind of game. Everything the Suns tried worked, from a Steve Nash three-quarters court shot well after the first quarter buzzer went off to a banked 32-footer from Channing Frye at the end of the third to a Goran Dragic alley-oop to Lou Amundson from beyond half court in the fourth.
“It was just one of those games that I thought from start to finish we did a really good job,” Gentry said.
The win continued Phoenix’s dominance in US Airways Center, as the Suns won their eighth straight home game dating back to March 12. The Suns have averaged 119.8 ppg and have hit for 110 in all but one. The Suns have also won 11 home games in a row overall against Denver (dating back to the start of the Nash Era) and are 21-5 at home against the West this season.
The Suns finished their home slate 32-9 overall, losing single digits at home for the third time in the last 15 years. Having won nine in a row to close their home schedule last season, Phoenix has taken 41 of its last 50 home games and is 14-2 in US Airways Center since the break.
All of those numbers are relevant since the Suns will be opening the playoffs this weekend in the Valley of the Suns.
“The thing that was really good is we’ve played well at home the last 6-8 weeks, and we’re going to need that in the postseason,” Hill said. “We just want to take care of home.”
Going along with the conference tournament theme I espoused in the preview, the Suns have now reached their conference championship game. If they win they get a cushy No. 3 seed and possibly the chance to play a banged-up Portland ball club.
If they lose, they will still be home against a Denver team whose weaknesses match up with Phoenix’s strengths (namely defending a team that runs and moves the ball as well as the Suns do).
I’d call that a win-win at this juncture of the year.
Better yet, the Suns are playing their best ball of the season, having won 13 of 15 and nine of those by double digits.
“We know we’re playing for real now, so we treated this stretch since we got back from Milwaukee like the playoffs have started, so hopefully when they do start it’s not an adjustment,” Hill said. “We feel good tonight, we came out, guys played great, we got off to a great start, second unit was great. It was just a good team effort.”
- Gentry said that Robin Lopez (back) won’t be available until the second round at the earliest. “There’s just so many factors in there,” Gentry said. “You also have to take into consideration he hasn’t been able to do anything cardio-wise. I would say that (second round) would be more realistic. He got a good report back, and he’s doing fine, made a bunch of improvements.There’s got to be a lot of things that fall into place before he’s able to even think about playing.”
- Amare Stoudemire joked that the difference between the Nos. 3 and 4 seed is that “the playoff check will be a little bit more.” … Amare received a number of “M-V-P” cries while shooting free throws, a chant often reserved in these parts for Nash. I can’t ever remember the fans chanting for Stoudemire in that way. … The Suns have shot 46.3 percent from long range since Robin Lopez went down. … Jared Dudley slammed home his fourth dunk of the season by going baseline on the Nuggets, bringing even STAT to his feet on the bench. Dudley also hit a trio of threes in the first half for 11 points.