Preview: Denver Nuggets (34-28) at Phoenix Suns (33-30)

Denver Nuggets 118, Phoenix Suns 107

Nuggets

Suns

PHOENIX — Phoenix Suns head coach Alvin Gentry won’t call anything a must-win. He despises the term, thinks it’s a silly mantra.

“I don’t like the term … you know what I’m talking about,” he said after the Suns beat the Clippers. “I won’t go there. These must-win things, I don’t believe in them. You just have to go out and play, and play extremely hard.”

This one is more of the same.

This one is the Denver Nuggets visiting the Suns this afternoon, a chance for Phoenix to pull within a half game of George Karl’s No. 7 seed. A win would also keep the Suns a nose in front of the Utah Jazz, who Phoenix faces on Tuesday in what we here at ValleyoftheSuns.com have dubbed the biggest game of the season.

The Suns are 0-2 against Denver this season. Steve Nash and company lost 109-92 in February, then 105-99 as veteran Nugget guard Andre Miller took over down the stretch on April 6.

“I think we’re due for a win,” Nash said. “We have to play really well. They’re a tough matchup for us, but you know, we’ve got to come out confident.”

Those matchup problems begin with the Nuggets’ offense — they rank second in pace and lead the league in scoring at 103.5 points per game. They’re also leading the NBA in assists, and they have a bit of a rebounding presence to go with it.

Rookie Kenneth Faried has developed into the rebounding threat and overall energy-generator that he was while playing at Morehead State last season. The trade to acquire JaVale McGee has given the Nuggets an enigmatic shot-blocker behind starter Kosta Koufos, and wings Danilo Gallinari and Corey Brewer can crash the glass as well.

That results in fast breaks, and point guard Ty Lawson leading those might be the biggest concern for Phoenix.

For the Suns themselves, the huge victory against the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday now stands as a question mark. Indeed, Phoenix beat a No. 4 seed in the thick of the elite Western Conference teams, but how they follow that up against a well-rested Nuggets squad — they last played against the Clippers on Wednesday — might be telling.

In other words, how much do they have in the tank?

We’ll see. But win or loss, it’s not the end of the playoff road.

“If you don’t win, does it mean you don’t play the other games?” Gentry said after the win against the Clippers. “No. We have to line up on Saturday and play Denver, and then play Utah and then San Antonio.”

Three keys for Phoenix

Throw him into the fire. Sebastian Telfair might be the key to Phoenix’s success from here on out, because the Suns bench will have to limit a savvy Denver bench. The Nuggets run out a second unit of vets Andre Miller and Al Harrington, along with an athletic duo of Corey Brewer and JaVale McGee. Telfair’s late-game defense against Chris Paul gave Jared Dudley reason to call the pesky defender the “black Sasha Vujacic” but it’s also Telfair’s command of the offense that NBA.com’s John Schuhmann discovered to be exceptional. Before the All-Star break, the offensive rating with Telfair on the floor was an ugly 91.2, but it’s skyrocketed to 104.7 since.

Cut up Koufos. I’m willing to admit I haven’t seen much of Kosta Koufos. But tell me I’m wrong if Marcin Gortat and Steve Nash can’t get him in trouble on the pick-and-rolls. Will he be able to hedge enough to keep Nash from turning his hips toward the bucket? Then will he be able to recover quickly enough to stop the Polish Machine from getting to the cup?

This is also about Gortat, who we’ve had some great back-and-forth in the comments sections about of late. While I’ve been known to be mighty critical of his play, I think it’s safe to assume confidence has been an issue for the center. It’s affected Gortat on both ends of the court, and while Koufos has seen increased minutes after the Nene trade, Gortat is easily the better player on the court.

Focus on scoring in the paint. The Nuggets are one of those teams that can drop 40 in a quarter given the chance, and considering the Suns have at times looked flat against the speedier teams in the league, they have to be careful about their own shot selection. While they can’t win by playing slow-down, gritty ball like they did against the Clippers, Phoenix can make sure it’s getting very open jumpers. If it’s not that, attacking in the paint will also reduce long rebounds and the ensuing fast breaks by guys like Lawson.

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