The Phoenix Suns blasted out to an 18-2 lead over the Denver Nuggets early in the first quarter of last night's game against the Denver Nuggets, and they never looked back.
The lead was 27 by the end of the third period at US Airways Center, and the Suns wound up embarrassing the Nuggets 123-101 after an entire fourth quarter of garbage time.
The win assured the Suns, whom we had given up on before the All-Star break, home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs and at least fourth seed in the NBA's Western Conference.
If Phoenix wins tonight against the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City, the Purple & Orange Gang would finish in third place, behind the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks.
The win against Denver was sweet, because the Suns pulverized an elite Western Conference team without starting center Robin Lopez.
In fact, in the last nine games since Lopez went down with a bulging disc in his back, Phoenix has won seven, including 10-point victories against the San Antonio Spurs and the Houston Rockets and the 22-point massacre of the Nuggets.
Their only losses came against the Thunder last week in Oklahoma City and against the Eastern Conference's Bucks in Milwaukee on April 3, neither of whom they are likely to see in the playoffs.
NBA scoring leader Kevin Durant and his 49-32 Thunder, the eighth and final seed in the West, have the misfortune of meeting Kobe Bryant's 57-24 Lakers, the West's top team, in the first round of the playoffs.
Who the Suns will play depends on whether they win tonight in Mormon Country:
If they beat Utah, Phoenix would move ahead of the Jazz into third place and play either the Portland Trailblazers or the San Antonio Spurs, who last night were the sixth and seventh seeds respectively, each with a 50-31 record
But the Spurs play the 51-24 Mavericks, the West's second-best team, tonight in Dallas, and the Blazers stay home against the lowly 25-56 Golden State Warriors. So, though anything can happen (the Warriors have beaten some good teams this year, including the Suns, and the Spurs can beat anybody on a given hight), our money's on Portland -- even without knee-injured Brandon Roy -- holding on to sixth.
So who would be the best first-round matchup for Phoenix?
Maybe not Portland, since the Blazers won one two of three against the Suns this season.
Maybe San Antonio, whom Phoenix beat two of three times in '09-'10, but those freakin' Spurs have a way of ruining things for our team (ie: that bench-clearing body-slam of Nash by now-retired Robert Hory that arguably cost the Suns the Western Conference Championship that year, and possibly even the NBA crown; the Spurs went on to win the West by shutting out LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavs in the finals).
If the Suns lose tonight in what will be a back-to-back game for both teams, they would remain in fourth place and play the Nuggets -- whom they have beaten three of four times this season -- with home-court advantage. (The Nuggets dearly hope the Suns prevail against Utah, since it would mean they finish fourth and win the Northwest Division, plummeting the Jazz to fifth.)
We're not saying Coach Alvin Gentry should throw the last game of the regular season, but...
One thing arguing for Phoenix's winning tonight is that Utah star power forward Carlos Boozer left last night's game at Golden State (which the Jazz won 103-94) with a pulled abdominal or rib-cage muscle, and his status for tonight will be decided at game time.
Another is that the Suns' starters, notably Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire, were able to sit out the entire fourth quarter, leaving matters to the likes of backup point guard Goran Dragic and forwards Lou Amundson and Jared Dudley to finish things up.
And they had no trouble taking care of business.
Dragic and and Amundson combined for three of Looooooou's four dunks, including two spectacular alley-oops. And Amundson and Dudley's shut-down defense finished putting the lid on things. Second-unit center, Channing Frye, had a great night, too. He pulled down eight rebounds and hit four of five threes to wind up with 12 points in 27 minutes.
The Nuggets Carmelo Anthony was the high scorer in the game with 29 points. Stoudemire had 26 points (several also resulting from spectacular dunks) for the Suns, but he pulled down eight rebounds to Anthony's six and (we never thought we'd be saying this about STAT) was killer on D (Melo and the Nuggets have taken over the Suns former spot as one of the softest defensive teams in the league).
The unstoppable Nash had 18 points, 10 assists, and ran Denver's defense ragged.
Hey, we like the Suns chances of getting to the conference finals.
Particularly if second-year pro Lopez can come back in the playoffs. He gives height and might in the paint that the Suns are lacking without him. Though the Lakers have a lot of talent, there will be no coronation this season; Kobe's team would have to work hard to win four of seven against either the Suns or the Mavericks.
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SHOW ME HOW
Phoenix beat the Lakers only once in four tries this year, but that was before Gentry had the team clicking on all eight cylinders. Okay, seven without Lopez, whom the Suns have proved over the last nine games that they can live without -- if they have to. It would be a miracle if the Suns won the West, but like we keep saying, anythng's possible in the NBA.
One thing's for sure: With the way Phoenix has played at the end of the regular season, they will be feared in the playoffs.
Tip-off for tonight's game against the Jazz is 7:30. TV: My45. Radio: KTAR 620 AM. For more information, go to www.suns.com.