Nuggets 119, Suns 113 OT – A whistle short


Since getting killed in New Orleans and Dallas on consecutive nights to culminate a four-game losing streak at the beginning of December, the Suns have been right there in every game they have lost.

Unfortunately, once again Phoenix grasped defeat from the jaws of victory Thursday in Denver, falling 119-113 in overtime, meanwhile failing to beat a good Western Conference team on the road once again.

Since winning the season opener in San Antonio, the Suns have lost in Utah, New Orleans, Dallas, Los Angeles, Portland and now Denver. They’ve also dropped home games to the only two teams not on that list – San Antonio and Houston – putting them 6-10 against the West’s elite, and that’s never a good thing.

What makes this toughest to swallow is all three of the games they’ve lost to good West teams since the J-Rich trade have been anyone’s game to win, contests that the Suns have found a way to lose.

It would be easy to blame this one on the officials, especially when the refs refused to blow the whistle on Grant Hill’s last-second drive much to the chagrin of head coach Terry Porter and even TNT announcer Doug Collins.

Hill put a wicked crossover on Denver’s Dahntay Jones as he went to the lane with the seconds ticking down, but then Jones stuck his leg out to trip Hill up, and as he was losing his balance in the air Nene appeared to make contact with the Suns forward as he released the shot.

I wouldn’t be half surprised if that trip was intentional, as Jones was clearly beat, and that may have been what his instincts told him to do.

“Dahntay stuck his leg out and tripped me and I lost my balance,” Hill told The Associated Press after scoring a team-high 25 points. “I ran into Nene at the same time. It was pretty obvious there was something there, but I guess the officials were scared to make that call.

“It’s really disheartening for a team to go out and play hard as we did and it comes down to a play like that where an official has the right angle. He kind of swallowed his whistle.”

Then the Nuggets brainfarted and didn’t call a timeout despite 2.1 seconds remaining on the clock, and we all know Danny Granger needed 1.2 seconds less than that to beat Phoenix.

I was kind of surprised the Suns would go to Hill with an iso in that situation, especially with Jones switching onto him, putting Kenyon Martin on Nash. Nash has made a career out of carving up bigs on those mismatches, so I would have loved to see him get the ball back.

The zebras also hurt the Suns when Matt Barnes picked up three fouls in three minutes of the fourth to foul out.

The first call at 8:33 was a clear case of The Birdman putting his acting skills to the test, and the officials bit. There’s no way the 6-foot-10 Andersen should fly across the floor on a little shoulder nudge.

Barnes picked up a stupid charge for his fifth, but then appeared to be in pretty good position to take a charge on an out-of-control Andersen a couple possessions later that the refs called on Barnes at 5:45.

Phoenix did not substitute the rest of the game, leaving Hill at power forward to go with three guards (Nash, J-Rich and Barbosa) and Amare at center.

I don’t think Hill has played power forward in his life, whereas Barnes is a capable four in a small ball alignment.

But again, you can’t blame this up-and-down game on the refs completely, as the Suns played bad enough in stretches that they deserved to lose. But they also played well enough at times that this game really makes you want to scream.

One of Phoenix’s most critical poor stretches came when Denver spurted out to an 11-0 run while the Suns went 4:24 in the heart of the fourth quarter without a single point. Surprisingly, this stretch started as Nash entered the game.

The Suns’ eight empty possessions went like this: J-Rich missed two, Nash missed three and a Barnes offensive rebound and aforementioned charge, Barbosa missed two and three, bad Barnes pass, another LB missed three, another Barnes charge, Nash bad pass and Hill travel.

If you’re scoring at home, that’s five turnovers, three missed threes, no Amare and no attacking the basket.

The turnover issue reared its ugly head again, as the Suns committed 23, making it amazing they even had a shot to win it in regulation. Nash went for six and Barnes and Amare each turned it over five times.

Speaking of STAT, he picked up his fifth foul with 3:51 left in the third quarter. From there he missed the next nine crucial minutes of action and took only one shot (he missed) before the game was essentially over with a minute left in overtime.

Amare was efficient offensively with 21 on 6-for-9 field goals and 9-for-10 free throws, and he was a team-best plus 15 in the first half. Playing without Shaq already for a night of rest, the Suns clearly missed STAT’s production down the stretch.

Shaq’s absence and foul trouble forced the Suns into some weird lineups, some I liked, others I didn’t.

Barbosa was terrible this game (six points, 1-for-11), but I still loved having him out there with the finishing unit, especially as well as he had been playing of late. It was great to see the Suns go with so much small ball, which while out of necessity put an exciting team on the floor.

I wouldn’t mind seeing similar alignments when Shaq sits, especially something like Nash-LB-J-Rich-Barnes-Amare.

Small ball was a necessity because Robin Lopez was terrible. While his twin Brook was putting up 17 points in New Jersey a few nights after going for 31 and 13, Robin struggled to four points, two rebounds, four fouls and three turnovers although he rarely touches the ball (when it’s not bouncing off his hands out of bounds, of course).

His plus-minus of minus 19 in this one was by far the worst of any Sun.

I still think Lopez has a future in this league, and I think he’s going to improve greatly between his first and second seasons, but he just looks lost out there right now.

And after watching both Lopez twins extensively at Stanford, I was surprised the Suns said they’d rather have Robin than Brook even if Brook had been available. Sure, on paper Robin’s shot blocking and athleticism fits the Suns better, but I wonder if anybody would say that today.

We also saw another weird lineup in the second quarter in which Porter went back to beginning of the season shifts mode with LB, Alando Tucker, Jared Dudley, Barnes and Lopez. The Suns only lost three points in those two scoreless minutes, but how do you think Goran Dragic feels not even being able to crack that lineup?