PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns have something to smile about after clinching home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs with a dominant victory over the Denver Nuggets Tuesday night.
But since the Suns’ brutal season-ending five-game stretch began, the Nuggets game has always been viewed as a stepping stone to an even bigger contest — tonight’s regular season finale in Utah against the Jazz.
It all comes down to this.
This game is the definition of the playoffs in the regular season. The No. 3 Western Conference playoff seed is at stake, and with both teams knotted up and playing on the tail end of a back-to-back, it is going to be a dogfight from start to finish.
“We’re playing to win,” Suns head coach Alvin Gentry said after the Denver win. “We’re not in a position to rest guys or do this or do that. It’s the last game that we play, it means something to us, so we’ll approach it that way as I’m sure Utah will, too.”
If the Suns defeat the Jazz, they will break their current tie with Utah and leapfrog Deron Williams and company into the No. 3 spot. If the Suns do indeed snag a victory, they would probably host the hobbled Portland Trail Blazers, who lost Brandon Roy for what appears to be the entire playoffs due to a slight meniscus tear in his right knee.
Despite the injury, if Portland can take care of Golden State tonight, it will remain the No. 6 seed. But if the Trail Blazers lose and the Spurs defeat the Mavericks, Phoenix and San Antonio will be squaring off for seemingly the 1,000th time this decade.
It isn’t the end of the world if the Suns can’t leave Utah with a win, as they would then host the Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs. Phoenix took three of four games from the Nuggets on the season, and Denver struggles mightily matching up with Amare Stoudemire and the Suns’ find-the-open-guy style of play.
But although the Suns have played two of their best games of the season against Carmelo Anthony and company, playing a Roy-less Portland club and dodging the Lakers in the second round remains the ideal scenario, so a win against the Jazz would obviously be huge, and Suns players are certainly aware.
“We’re not satisfied (with the four seed),” said Suns forward Grant Hill after the Nuggets victory. “To be in this situation we’re in right now, last game, playing for the third spot, couldn’t be any better.”
Steve Nash echoed Hill’s statment: “We’re not happy with where we are as an end result.”
Although the Suns own the NBA’s second-best record since the All-Star break (22-6) and have won 13 of their last 15, the Jazz have the clear advantage thanks to their 32-8 record in the hostile environment of EnergySolutions Arena, where they have won 10 in a row. The Jazz are 12-4 at home this season against teams with a .600 winning percentage or higher, and Suns head coach Alvin Gentry is 4-16 in career games against Utah head coach Jerry Sloan.
Utah stole the first two games from Phoenix this season, as it outscored the Suns by 14 and 19 in the fourth quarter of the first two games, respectively. But Amare Stoudemire and his running mates made up for the losses in late March when STAT exploded for 44 points and the Suns waltzed to a 110-100 victory.
Stoudemire, the Western Conference Player of the Month, is averaging the third-most points (26.9) in the NBA since the All-Star break, trailing only LeBron James and Kevin Durant. The Jazz don’t exactly have an answer for STAT, but the Suns also struggle containing fellow free-agent-to-be Carlos Boozer, who is having a nice season in his own right and has torched the Suns to the tune of 19.7 points and 17.0 rebounds in three games this season. However, the Suns might not even have to worry about Boozer since his availability is uncertain after the forward left during the second quarter of Tuesday’s win in Golden State with a muscle strain in his rib cage and did not return.
Regardless of if Boozer suits up, the Jazz offense begins and ends with Deron Williams — who is averaging 22 and 10 in April — so if Nash and the Suns can find a way to limit D-Will, stealing the No. 3 seed will be that much easier.
This game has all the makings of Game 7 of a playoff series, so don’t expect it to disappoint. When the postseason is over, this is a game that you can look back to and pinpoint for shaping the complexion of the Western Conference playoff race.
UPDATE: Boozer out, Okur to play
The Suns’ chances of capturing the No. 3 seed have skyrocketed being that Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Ross Siler tweeted that Paul Millsap is penciled into the starting lineup in place of Boozer. It was rumored that Mehmet Okur may also sit with an Achilles injury, but Siler tweeted that Okur will play.
Before the game, Boozer told Siler:
“I was really worried last night because it was so sharp,” Boozer said of the pain. “It’s still really sharp. Hopefully we can do some stuff in there (the trainer’s room) and dull it out a little bit, hopefully try to get me to play. If I can’t, then I’ll just have to wait until this weekend.”
Matchup to watch: Deron Williams vs. Steve Nash. In 14 career matchups each point guard has come out victorious seven times. During those 14 games their numbers shake out as follows: PPG: Nash (16.1), Williams (17.9); APG: Nash (11.7), Williams (9.0); FG%: Nash (47.6), Williams (45.0) … Utah’s do-it-all forward Andrei Kirilenko, who has missed the last eight games with a calf injury, told The Salt Lake Tribune that it’s “highly unlikely” he will play tonight.
Michael Schwartz and the Elias Sports Bureau contributed to this report.