Preview: Phoenix Suns (28-26) at Denver Nuggets (29-25)

Denver Nuggets 105, Phoenix Suns 99

Suns

Nuggets

If the Phoenix Suns plan on reaching the playoffs despite a brutal closing schedule, they must take care of the games against teams fighting with them for the final playoff spots in the West and then hang on against the contenders.

After gutting out a crucial win Wednesday in Utah, the Suns face another must-win game tonight against a Denver Nuggets team that leads them by one game for the eighth seed.

This is the kind of contest that could determine whether Phoenix secures a playoff spot or not. With the victory, not only would the Suns be tied for a postseason berth but they would be in position to take the tiebreaker over Denver as well with a win over the Nuggets on April 21 in US Airways Center.

Having already clinched the tiebreaker against Utah last night and with four teams separated by 1 1/2 games for the final two playoff spots in the West, it should come as no surprise if a tiebreaker ends up sending a team to the playoffs.

After their mojo seemed to be crushed with back-to-back tough losses to the Spurs and the Clippers, the Suns have rebounded nicely by winning three in a row to get themselves right back in the thick of the race.

The Suns have jumped from the mid-20s all the way up to 39.0 percent in John Hollinger’s Playoff Odds in the past few days, and a win tonight would make a playoff push that much more likely.

The Nuggets enter this one coming off as big a low as the Suns are on a high after stubbing their toe Wednesday night against the Western Conference’s worst team, the New Orleans Hornets. Just as the Suns have caught fire the Nuggets have cooled off, as they are just a .500 team in their past 14 games starting with a home loss to Cleveland on March 7.

We could be in for a shootout tonight as the Nuggets are known for their offense, boasting the league’s fourth-most efficient attack (105.3 points per 100) while playing a blistering tempo that ranks second in the NBA.

However, in these past 14 games Denver ranks just eighth in offensive rating and sixth to last in defensive rating, according to the NBA’s advanced stats tool, as a plethora of injuries and the loss of Nene to trade have really hurt them.

By contrast since the All-Star break the Suns boast the league’s fourth-most efficient offense and 15th-ranked defense, which makes it no surprise they have won 14 of 20 games after the break after winning just 14 of 34 to start the season behind the NBA’s 16th-best offense and 23rd-best defense.

The Nuggets are known for their quality depth, which has led them to the precipice of the playoffs without a real star. Ty Lawson is producing a superb year, leading the team with 15.9 points and 6.8 assists per game, and he’s joined by eight other Nuggets averaging better than nine points per game.

With this being the Suns’ third road game in four days, they will need to be sure not to force bad shots or commit live turnovers that lead to transition opportunities for a Denver team that crushes opponents with its speed, athleticism and depth, particularly on its home floor.

The Suns have put themselves in position to qualify for the playoffs with this 16-7 tear that has launched them into the logjam at the bottom of the West playoff picture.

Now they have a chance, but they must beat their fellow West playoff bubble teams to finish the job.

And 1

Injured Suns forward Grant Hill will join Tom Leander and Scott Williams for a portion of the broadcast tonight, according to producer Bob Adloch. It should be interesting to hear a current player’s perspective on his team, particularly someone as eloquent as Hill.

Statistical support for this story from NBA.com.

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