Tonight the Phoenix Suns face the Denver Nuggets (7:00 pm AZ time on FoxSports Arizona (TV) and ArizonaSports 98.7 (radio)) in a game featuring two teams outside the Western Conference playoff race despite winning 9 of their last 10 games collectively.
The Nuggets have won five straight games and the Suns have won four of their last five, but neither team would be in the playoffs if they started today. On the year, the Nuggets are only 7-7 while the Suns 9-6 record isn't good enough to be in the West elite.
Still, the Suns 9-6 start is their best since 2009 when they started 12-3 in the first 15 games of their last playoff season. With 3 of their next 4 at home, the Suns have a chance to build on their hot start before the schedule gets tougher.
With a five-game winning streak, you might think the Denver Nuggets have righted their ship and are on the verge of a long-awaited playoff-type season.
The Nuggets five wins are against the Cavaliers (join the club!), OKC Thunder (join the club!), Pelicans (that's a good one), Lakers (meh) and last night against the Rose-less Chicago Bulls. But hey, that's a tougher sked than the Suns have faced in winning four of five, so hat's off to the Nugs.
The key for the Nuggets is defense. When they lost six straight games earlier this month, they gave up 102+ points in each game with two of them at 130+. In their five game winning streak, they surrendered 100 or less in four of them. Last night, they gave up 109 to the Rose-less Bulls but scored 114 of their own to win the game.
P.J. Tucker could be this year's Channing Frye. Yep, I said it. It makes no sense, but I said it anyway.
Somewhere along the Suns 6-game road trip, P.J. suddenly appeared as the pick man in the high pick-and-roll where he's the one curling out of it to the top of the arc awaiting the kick-out pass while the point guard is sizing up the D. He's made at least four catch-and-shoot threes from that play in the last two games and looks comfortable enough to become a regular.
The pick-and-pop partner is a must-have in the Suns' offense. It's the perfect antidote to the NBA's favorite ICE defense against the traditional pick and roll that all teams use to prevent the roll and/or drive to the basket. The Suns perfected it last year with Frye, but have struggled with Markieff Morris passing up too many shots and Anthony Tolliver never finding his rhythm or range.
P.J.'s ability to set a good screen (check), roll out to the three-point line (check) and catch-and-shoot in rhythm (check, so far), might just earn him his starting spot back in the lineup and save Goran Dragic's season all at once.
Last year's Suns-Nuggets series
The Phoenix Suns had Denver's number all last year, sweeping them cleanly in four straight. But that doesn't necessarily mean anything. The awful 2012-13 Suns had Memphis' number, but the more-talented 2013-14 Suns were awful against the Grizz.
Can the Suns reprise their record against the Nuggets this season? On the plus side, the Nuggets still have Brian Shaw as their coach, a guy who just doesn't know how to make the most of his roster. They are a run-n-gun roster with a defense-oriented coach. The Suns' pace is so enticing that the Nuggets players fall into the trap of running and just can't keep up.
The (potential) Lineups
The Key Matchup
While the PG matchup (Ty Lawson vs. the Hydra) will be fun to watch, the biggest worry for me is Danilo Gallinari. He's been pretty bad this season so far for the Nuggets, but his ability to catch-and-shoot threes can kill the Suns. Gallinari was their best player in the preseason matchup in October, and if he's their best player tonight the Suns are in trouble.
Out on a limb
At some point in this young season, last year's scoring leader Goran Dragic will lead the team in scoring. My guess is tonight. After Dragic deferred to IT and Bledsoe on Monday, expect Hornacek to reward him with big minutes tonight against Denver. I see Dragic having 20+ and 6+ assists for the first time all season. Boom.
The score will be high, and the Suns will win this one handily.