Who: Denver Nuggets (52-27) at Phoenix Suns (44-35)
When: 7:00 PM AZ Time
Where: Footprint Center, Phoenix, AZ
Watch: TNT (outside local area), Bally Sports EXTRA (Cox, app)
Listen: 98.7 FM with Al McCoy — while you still can — and Tim Kempton
For the second time in seven days, the Phoenix Suns host the Denver Nuggets at Footprint Center. And just like last time, we likely won’t see Denver’s best players make the trip to Phoenix.
The Nuggets have had the top seed in the West locked up for a while, and now the Suns have locked up the 4th seed. That sets these two teams up for a rematch of the 2021 Playoffs in the second round if they can each beat their first round opponent. Obviously, that seven-game series is pivotal to both teams’ title chances.
For now, though, they’re just playing their 80th game of a five month regular season with no stakes. Win or lose, both teams will be in the same position, facing the same prospect of a two-month playoff grind ahead.
A week ago, the Nuggets kept four of their five starters in Denver and allowed themselves to take a blowout loss to the Suns who were just then re-incorporating Kevin Durant into the lineup. A similar thing might happen again tonight.
Suns: None to report
Nuggets: Nikola Jokic (calf), Jamal Murray (thumb) and Zeke Nnaji (knee) are all DOUBTFUL
There’s no reason for the top-seeded Nuggets to show their hand to the Suns in this one. If you’re gonna get blown out by the Rockets with your full lineup in place, like they did two days ago, why give the Suns any extra confidence? Better to sit your stars against a likely playoff opponent and have an excuse for the embarrassing loss, like they did last week.
Potential league MVP Nikola Jokic has been dealing with a sore calf for the past week, and Jamal Murray suffered a thumb injury against the Rockets. The Nuggets-Rockets game started fine, but went south in a hurry once Murray went out.
The Nuggets are suffering from what the Suns dealt with a year ago — having such a big lead over the West since the All-Star break they lost their edge. After getting to a season-best 46-19 on March 6, the Nuggets have lost 8 of 13 games and now have minor injuries to deal with.
Like the Suns, it’s all about health come playoff time. So don’t be surprised to see Murray and Jokic, if not 1-2 other starters, sit out this one in Phoenix.
On one hand, the Suns have nothing to play for either. They are locked into the 4th seed in the West no matter what happens over their last three games. And with more of an injury history than any team in the NBA, you’d think they might want to dial it back over these last three games to stay healthy and rested for the playoffs.
I can see that happening this weekend, in LA against the Lakers and then in Phoenix vs. Clippers, but I suspect we will get the full rotation at least tonight vs. Denver. The Suns still need to iron out some kinks with the Durant-Booker-Paul-Ayton quadrangle that only true game action will provide. They are doing great with Josh Okogie as the 5th starter, sporting the 4th-best net rating of any five-man lineup that’s played at least 100 minutes together with a +17.3 in 110 minutes. But those 110 minutes don’t even crack the top 250 most frequent lineups in the league this season. A year ago, the Suns starting lineup had 754 minutes together, which ranked 2nd in the league.
Head coach Monty Williams did say after the last game, a win over the tanking Spurs, that he’s trying to get their conditioning up, and there’s only so many more chances to do that.
“We’re trying to build their capacity to handle those minutes right now, allowing Kevin to have longer stretches,” Williams said after the Spurs game. “We’re hoping to win these games that we’re playing, but we also want to build cardio so that those guys are ready, because we’re grateful to be able to play in the playoffs again.”
He also talked about needing more film and eye test heading into the playoffs.
“Just trying to figure out the combinations,” he said. “What looks good from the eye test and what looks good when we watch film when we go home, and then the numbers based on those combinations.”
Again, I’d guess we see the whole Suns rotation tonight against Denver. But tomorrow night in LA against the Lakers might be a different story, not wanting to overwork them on a back-to-back, and then Sunday against the Clippers might mean more to the Clips than the Suns, in terms of playoff positioning.
If the Nuggets have everyone going, we might get an unexpected treat. But I don’t see that happening. If the Suns play their full lineup and the Nuggets only play half their guys, it’s an easy Suns win.
Suns win, 120-100.