Originally posted on Fox Sports Arizona  |  Last updated 4/21/12
PHOENIX -- While the temperature was making a somewhat premature rise outside, the Phoenix Suns spent Saturday inside, unwittingly turning up their degree of difficulty. A 118-107 loss to the Denver Nuggets didn't cancel their grindstone push toward a Western Conference playoff berth; but it did leave them in a must-not-lose situation for Tuesday night in Salt Lake City. The team that slogged through the season with little margin for error now finds itself obliged to work outside those margins. And it wasn't exactly stunning to see them get worked by Denver, which now owns a six-game, regular-season winning streak over Phoenix spanning the last two campaigns. Yeah, the Nuggets have the Suns' number, and that number is nine ... as in the seed they currently hold while waiting to find out if the eighth-seeded Utah Jazz will drop the Orlando Magic later Saturday night. Suns fans are advised to go ahead and exhale because Orlando is working without Dwight Howard, who recently had surgery to repair a herniated disc that may have nothing to do with the debated perception of Coach Stan Van Gundy spending the last couple of seasons on Howard's back. Anyway, now that the Nuggets have clinched a playoff ticket and are eyeballing the sixth seed, the Suns find themselves in a predicament we all should have expected. "We still control our own destiny," Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. Yeah, if destiny is a greased pig. Here's the situation: unless some truly nutty results occur between now and the regular-season's end, Phoenix will required to knock off the Jazz one night before taking down the conference-leading San Antonio Spurs. Although the Suns defeated the Jazz on their last visit to Utah (securing that potentially lovely tiebreaker), doing so again hardly qualifies as a hay ride. Depending on how badly the Spurs need -- or Coach Gregg Popovich wants -- to win Wednesday in Phoenix, that date will be tricky, as well. To be fair, Gentry wasn't pretending that losing to the Nuggets was less than a big deal. "It puts us really behind the 8-ball," he said. Right, a magic 8-ball that reads: "Outlook not so good." The outlook also includes an injured right shoulder for Channing Frye, who didn't return for the second half. At post time, his near-future status was uncertain. Another obvious reason for the latest interpretation of the Suns' overall outlook was Nuggets' point guard Ty Lawson. Just killing an opportunity for Phoenix to roll into Salt Lake City needing one measly vanquishing of the Jazz (leaving no Spurs-related concerns), Lawson dropped 29 points on the home team. "He's a real tough match-up," Gentry said. For the majority of Game No. 64, Lawson was matched up against Suns Hall-of-Famer-in-waiting Steve Nash. On offense, Nash did look typically locked in with his first-quarter pitches, piling of 9 of his game-high 13 assists and passing the great Oscar Roberston for fifth place on the NBA's all-time dime list. But Lawson, who made 10 of 16 shots, including all 5 3-pointers for the game -- was able to get anywhere he needed to be on the floor and finished the opening stanza with a dozen points. By the way, Nuggets coach George Karl was attempting to create several levels of match-up crisis. Some of these maneuvers are provoked by injury and others can be traced to his mad-scientist approach. With a habit of playing small ball, Karl was able to space the Suns' defense enough to create driving lanes and facilitate ball reversals and open 3s. When it was over, Denver had made 55 percent of its shots from the field -- including 6 of 13 from deep -- with a whopping 68 points in the paint. Those numbers, abetted by 17 Suns turnovers, include the Nuggets enjoying a 26-2 romp in fast-break points. Rather than go small in the backcourt to deal with Lawson and Andre Miller, the Suns remained status quo until Nash joined Sebastian Telfair in the lineup with only 3:16 left in the game. During the limited time Telfair was directly matched with Lawson to that point, the Denver buzz saw made two free throws and one where's-the-help? lay-up. When Denver went small with its frontcourt during the fourth quarter, the Suns went small, too, instead of pounding the ball inside. They also abandoned a brief showing of zone defense at the other end that might have been do-able if they kept a center in the game. But, to be sure, this loss was all-but-secured during the opening minutes of the second half. Trailing 60-58 at intermission, Phoenix was hit with a 23-6 run and trailed 83-64 at 6:53 of the third quarter. "We missed some defensive assignments, turned it over and we took quick shots," Nash said in a brief explanation of what went wrong. That collapse had little, if anything, to do with match-ups. The brighter Suns spots included an 18-point, 11-rebound game from Marcin Gortat through three quarters and 28 points from Shannon Brown. Brown did require 24 shots to get there, but his fearless approach to offense could come in handy next week. While waiting for news on Frye, it should be noted the Suns may have Grant Hill (knee) back for the final countdown. "We just have to bounce back," Brown said. "We have to go to Utah ... tough environment, tough atmosphere. We know it's not going to be easy." For this team, how could it be?
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