Denver Nuggets 118, Phoenix Suns 107 -- Playoff hopes subluxed

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eeWc0hoKaHs]

PHOENIX — For a half the Phoenix Suns were every bit the equal of the Denver Nuggets, going basket for basket with them in a back-and-forth opening 24 minutes that severely taxed the scoreboard operator’s trigger finger.

But after losing Channing Frye to a shoulder subluxation late in the first half, the Nuggets opened the second half on a 23-6 run and went on to blow out the Suns, 118-107.

“We just had a really, really tough time slowing them down,” said head coach Alvin Gentry. “We could never get them really under control after the start of the third quarter. They started out with that burst where they got a couple of easy layups and alley-oop dunks and then and we just struggled to get them slowed down from there.”

Denver eventually extended its lead to 21 points late in the third and maintained a double-digit advantage throughout the final period.

One would think that any loss at this point of the season would be critical, but really the biggest definitive that resulted from the defeat is that Phoenix can now finish no higher than eighth (which we all but knew at the start of the day anyways).

However, it does take away all of the Suns’ margin for error. After the Jazz beat the Magic tonight to take a one-game lead on Phoenix, the Suns must win out to make the playoffs whereas with a win today they could have clinched in Salt Lake and rested during the Spurs game. The Suns could also get in by beating the Jazz and losing to the Spurs if Utah falls to the Blazers in its finale, but that’s unlikely.

Today’s result also opens up the utterly minuscule possibility of missing out the playoffs even if they win these last two, as the Suns would finish ninth in a three-way tie with the Nuggets and Rockets. However, for that to happen along with the Suns winning out, the Rockets would have to win out and the Nuggets and Jazz would have to lose out, so I suppose that is unlikely enough to continue saying the Suns control their own destiny.

If the Suns had beaten the Nuggets today but still finished in a three-way tie with the Rockets and Nuggets they would have been the eighth seed and thus they would have been able to clinch a playoff berth Tuesday in Utah unequivocally had they won. Now the Suns must win out and get the most modest bit of help.

“Big game at Utah, obviously,” Nash said in the understatement of the century. “It’s disappointing to lose tonight, but we’re still in a great position. We’ve given ourselves a chance to control our own destiny still, so we’ve got to regroup and have a great performance in Salt Lake.”

This one turned after Frye subluxed his right shoulder with 4:33 left in the first half and the Suns trailing by a point. The UA product corralled a ball Jared Dudley saved from going out of bounds and was hacked by Danilo Gallinari on a layup attempt (of course no foul was called).

Frye immediately grabbed his shoulder, sauntered over to the baseline and knelt down as head athletic trainer Aaron Nelson attended to him. The Suns had led for the first 6:54 of the second quarter but never regained the lead after Frye’s departure.

The Suns will have a better idea of whether Frye will miss any time tomorrow. He sat out for 12 days last season when he dislocated the same right shoulder in Oklahoma City (no foul was called then either), but as Paul Coro pointed out this is not as serious. According to SandersClinic.net, “A small amount of instability in shoulder ligaments can permit the shoulder to slip slightly out of its socket, which is called subluxation.”

However, it’s worth noting that Frye leads the Suns in unadjusted plus/minus (plus 13.23 entering the day, a point per 100 ahead of Nash), according to Basketball Value, so perhaps it should be no surprise the Suns struggled without him.

“He stretches the floor,” said Shannon Brown, who recorded the second-highest scoring game of his career with 28. “He’s a good defender out there, and he can do it on the inside. He’s just one of the key players to this team. We didn’t have him out there, and they just came out first five minutes and did what they wanted kind of.”

The Suns finished the first half (and opened the second) with a lineup in which Hakim Warrick ran with the starters, and in 13 minutes of action that unit got outscored by 14 points and yielded 56.7 percent shooting (while knocking down just 41.4 percent of their own shots), according to the NBA’s stats tool.

The Nuggets won this game in transition by slaughtering the Suns 26-2 in this department, and never was that more true than at the start of the third.

However, after the game Gentry did not want any blame placed on Warrick, the forward who has been out of the rotation since the beginning of the season in large part due to his defensive woes.

“Our whole team was lost defensively, I don’t think it was one guy,” Gentry said. “The rook had three fouls and we didn’t want to put him in and get a quick fourth foul. I thought Hak was fine. It was everything else that we struggled with. We struggled with keeping guys in front of us, we struggled with the offensive rebounding part of it. We just had a lot of things.”

Not that it would have likely mattered, but later on we saw some strange coaching decisions from Gentry, as he opted to chain Marcin Gortat to the bench in the fourth after the Machine played a solid game through three with 18 and 11.

That led to the Suns’ smallest lineup since the Small Ball team of KJ, Kidd, Chapman and Person as Nash-Telfair-Brown-Dudley-Warrick took the floor as the Suns chose to match a small Denver unit rather than pound them inside.

The putrid third quarter cancelled out a stellar first period in which the Suns shot 60.9 percent thanks to Nash facilitating everything with nine assists, but the shots stopped falling as the Suns shot 46.3 percent for the game, including 31.0 percent in the fateful third.

After this loss, the Suns’ margin for error has been eliminated and their playoff scenarios are very simple: win out and they’re almost for sure in, lose another one and they’re almost certainly going fishing.

And 1

  • During Nash’s near flawless first quarter, he passed Oscar Robertson (9,887) for fifth on the NBA’s all-time assists list. Magic Johnson is next with 10,141. Said Nash: “It’s an amazing situation. I never thought I’d be in this position, but it’s hard to put it in perspective, especially with the loss today.”
  • Ty Lawson torched the Suns as he so often does, exploding for 29 points and 10 assists on 10-for-16 shooting (5-for-5 threes), including 11 and four in the decisive third period. Said Gentry: “He’s really hurt us. If you look at his stats over the last six, seven games against us, they’re as good as anyone’s in the league. … He’s just a real tough matchup. He’s a really good penetrator, he’s shooting the ball well.”
  • According to ESPN Stats and Info, the Nuggets swept the Suns for just the second time in the past 35 seasons (2003-04 was the other year). Denver has won two in a row in Phoenix after losing 12 straight.
  • Dudley on Twitter: “Can’t sugar coated we got outplayed in all aspects of the game.That being said we still control our destiny.This Tuesday vs UTAH is the game.”
  • Frye on Twitter: “Thanks for the well-wishes everyone We have the best trainers in the league and i have full faith in our team we can still make the playoff.” Does that mean he thinks he’s out for the regular season?

Statistical support provided by NBA.com.

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