If the Phoenix Suns are ultimately unable to do the unthinkable and sneak into the playoffs, Friday night’s 105-99 loss to the Denver Nuggets will be forever viewed as — like Katy Perry so eloquently put it — the one that got away.
With their backs against the wall and their postseason hopes more or less on the line, the Suns had everything in place to knock off the Nuggets and move into seventh place in the Western Conference.
The stars were aligned to win their fourth straight game, be in position to capture the all-important tiebreaker from Denver, and take one step closer toward completing their improbable run into the playoffs.
Instead, they collapsed, lost the tiebreaker, snapped their three-game win streak, and dropped back into 10th place in the West, two games back of the eighth place Houston Rockets, who defeated the Lakers on Friday night.
After going blow for blow with the Nuggets in every aspect of the game for the better part of three-and-a-half quarters and leading 99-96 with 3:09 remaining, the Suns’ offense disappeared. Phoenix misfired on its final nine field goal attempts — seven of which were jump shots — and failed to score over the course of the final 3:09 as the late-game heroics that catapulted them to victory in Utah vanished.
The Nuggets, on the other hand, carved up Phoenix’s combination of zone and man defense and went 2-of-4 from the field while knocking down four crucial free throws to escape defeat.
Andre Miller scored 13 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter, Al Harrington knocked down big-time threes on his way to 23 points in 29 minutes, and Arron Afflalo exploded for 30 points on 11-of-19 shooting, including a triple with 48 ticks left that pushed Denver’s lead to 103-99.
The Suns fell apart down the stretch, wasting an effort that should have resulted in a win. While it was a back and forth contest from the start, the Suns captured the lead halfway through the fourth quarter thanks to their bench mob that turned a 78-75 deficit at the end of the third into a 94-90 lead before turning it over to Steve Nash and company with 5:56 remaining.
Michael Redd scored 11 of his 15 points in the first 5:21 of the fourth quarter and you could feel the Suns starting to pull away as they turned a 13-1 run into a 92-87 lead halfway through the fourth.
They were clicking on all cylinders and dominating the boards against a Nuggets team that ranks fourth in the NBA in rebounding differential — Phoenix finished the game with a 54-41 advantage on the glass.
Aside from Afflalo and Harrington’s outbursts and Miller’s fourth quarter, notorious Suns-killer Ty Lawson was a non-factor with two points and eight assists on 1-for-8 shooting and Phoenix limited Denver to 40.2 percent shooting from the floor.
But in the end it was Phoenix’s inability to create easy opportunities down the stretch combined with its 16 turnovers (turned into 26 Nuggets points) and Denver’s 11 three-pointers that doomed the Suns.
The Suns clearly weren’t going to win out the rest of the regular season, and losses were expected. But what’s devastating is the nature of the situation along with the fact that Phoenix played well enough to win the game.
They got a combined 22 points and 25 rebounds from Channing Frye and Marcin Gortat, solid minutes from their bench, 18 points from Shannon Brown, 17 from Jared Dudley, and 14 and 11 from Nash.
They jumped out to a 29-21 lead after one, were knotted up at 52 at halftime, and led by as many as five in the fourth quarter. The Suns did a great job keeping the Nuggets on the perimeter and Denver’s traditional big men Kenneth Faried, Kosta Koufos, and JaVale McGee shot a combined 8-for-21 from the field.
But Denver made timely shots, Phoenix settled for out-of-rhythm jumpers late in the game, and the Suns’ playoff chances took a serious hit as they still have the Lakers (tomorrow night), Timberwolves, Grizzlies, Rockets, Spurs (twice), Trail Blazers, Thunder, Clippers, Nuggets, and Jazz to close out the season.
It’s too early to count the Suns out yet, but there’s no doubt they missed a golden opportunity in the Mile High City on Friday night. When the dust settles and the playoff seeds are set, if the Suns are on the outside looking in they’ll certainly look back at this April 6 contest and wonder “what if.”
- While the Suns struggled with turnovers, the Nuggets coughed it up only five times, which led to only four Phoenix fast break points. The Nuggets scored 16 points in transition.
- Redd went for 15 or more for the third straight game, the first time he’s done that since January of 2009.
- Although it doesn’t show up in the box score, Josh Childress gave the Suns 15 solid minutes. He was active defensively, took a few smart fouls and finished with two points, three rebounds, an assist and two blocks.
- While the Suns lost the Rockets defeated the Lakers 112-107 and the Jazz beat the Warriors 104-98. The Suns now trail the Rockets by two games the Jazz by half a game.
- Strangely enough, the Suns also suffered a crushing defeat by the same 105-99 final margin two years ago in the Pepsi Center.