PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns will conclude this week’s Stayin’ Alive home stand with a Saturday visit from a team without superstar portfolio.
But this absence of celebrity chops hasn’t prevented the Denver Nuggets from managing to claim, for now, the Western Conference’s seventh seed. More than a year after watching Carmelo Anthony shove off to New York City, George Karl’s Nuggets thrive on depth and setting the NBA’s second-fastest pace.
This tempo has enabled them to register as the league’s top scoring team and its fourth best in offensive efficiency.
Their on-court accelerator is a speedy little dude named Ty Lawson, who happens to be a nasty match-up for the Phoenix Suns and their precarious hold on the eighth seed.
But the Suns may have found a partial answer.
Enter Sebastian Telfair, who dribbled into Phoenix last December as the stand-in for Steve Nash and — when Ronnie Price was hired — quickly found himself backing up the backup. Between now and then, “Bassy” has risen to the rank of quick, relentless leader for a Suns second unit that has been vital in this resurrected playoff push.
But, thanks to Saturday’s matchup possibilities and his late work in Thursday’s nerve-squeezing triumph over the Los Angeles Clippers, Telfair might receive a bit more specialized time with the first string.
The eighth-year pro acquitted himself quite nicely when called upon by Alvin Gentry to defend Clippers star point guard Chris Paul. Working alongside Nash against the Clips’ small backcourt, Telfair provoked one of the league’s elite players into a personal battle that included several vigorously contested shots by Paul.
“It was something that we thought about doing earlier,” Gentry said of playing Telfair and Nash together. “We decided to save it until the end.”
Depending on the flow of Saturday’s matinee, Gentry might not wait quite as long to go small against the Nuggets. The risky side of pairing Nash and Telfair is the potential for minimized flow when the Suns transition back to offense without the opportunity for a substitution break. Having two dribble-dominant guards probably wouldn’t lead to a scoring explosion if the Suns find themselves in a hole. But in a defensive-related platoon situation, Telfair might come in handy again.
Aside from utilizing the furious speed of Lawson, Karl likes to roll out veteran point guard Andre Miller at the same time. A check of the league’s plus-minus numbers reveals that this downsized backcourt is part of the top four Denver lineups.
And although Miller has had success against Phoenix in the past, the player most capable of slipping past the defensive wall the Suns will attempt to build is Lawson.
During their five victories in the last six regular-season dates with the Suns — including a 2-0 mark this season — Lawson has been a major factor four times.
In three wins over Phoenix last season, Lawson compiled 51 points, made 16 of 25 shots from the field and handed out 23 assists.
This season’s two home victories over the Suns offered two disparate looks at Lawson, who scored 17 points — making 6 of 7 from the field — in a 109-92 decision on Valentine’s Day, and contributed just two in a 105-99 win earlier this month.
His combined work against Telfair in those two games spanned a grand total of 3 minutes and 28 seconds. With the potential for more head-to-head action in Game 64 of this season, we could be watching a level of quickness and competitive fire you might see with two cats and one ball of yarn.
But Saturday’s chess matches won’t be limited to the backcourt.
When the Nuggets and Suns line up, the battles at power forward figure to be capable of greatly affecting the outcome. And, with so much on the line, two youngsters may play important roles.
Denver has been starting 6-foot-7 (give or take) rookie Kenneth Faried at the four, while Suns rookie Markieff Morris continues supporting Channing Frye in an important reserve capacity.
Leading up to last year’s draft, Faried drew interest from the Suns, who eventually selected Morris with the 13th overall pick. Denver used the 22nd pick to nab Faried, and the former Morehead State star demonstrated enough rebounding energy and defensive pluck to allow the Nuggets to deal Nene and his huge contract to the Washington Wizards for center JaVale McGee.
It has been reported that the April 6 loss in Denver inspired Suns coaches to remind Morris what playing with fire on every play can do. As the model, Faried scored 13 points and grabbed eight rebounds against Phoenix that night. Morris, still looking for his sea legs after having flu-like symptoms, had three and three.
But the key for Morris, who has played with considerable passion during the Suns’ stretch drive, is his matchup with Denver’s veteran stretch four man Al Harrington. Harrington, a volume 3-point shooter, made 4 of 10 from distance on April 6 and has the ability to exploit Morris’ tendency to lose contact with snipers during help situations.
If the Suns can stay in front of Lawson, the need for such seed-saving defensive help might not be as great.