DENVER - This was no place, and no time, to run out of reinforcements.
Playing their fourth game in five nights — from New Jersey to Phoenix to mile-high Colorado — the Suns were so low on weapons and gunpowder Tuesday at the Pepsi Center they had to resort to hand-to-hand combat with a desperate Denver team teetering on the edge of the Western Conference playoff race.
Without Grant Hill for a third straight game, without Raja Bell after he was ejected early in the third quarter and without Boris Diaw, who fouled out with 1:14 left, the Suns kept swinging but finally fell. The 126-120 loss left both teams exhausted and dead even — for both the back-to-back battles over the last 24 hours and the season series.
“They’re good and we’re good, we just didn’t get it done,” said Suns coach Mike D’Antoni, who saw his team remain in fifth place in the West but drop a half-game behind the Lakers in the Pacific Division race. “Losing Raja hurt, there’s no doubt about it. That’s two wings with Grant down and Raja is our defensive guy, which made things tough. But we came after it hard and just missed a couple of shots. We had our chances.”
After rallying from 22 points down to win Monday night, the Suns spotted the Nuggets another 14-point cushion in the first half before roaring back and finally taking their first lead at 113-112 on two Steve Nash free throws with 3:11 to play.
Nash, admittedly out of gas most of the night, had 17 of his 18 assists in the first three quarters but came alive in the fourth with 14 of his 17 points.
Nash’s 8-foot floater gave Phoenix their final lead with 1:25 left. But after Diaw fouled out and Carmelo Anthony made two game-tying free throws, Amaré Stoudemire (25 points, 10 rebounds) missed a wide open 20-footer before Marcus Camby tossed in an off-balance shot from the same distance with the shot clock running out to give Denver the lead for good.
“That’s the way it went for us,” Nash said. “Amaré is usually dead on from there, and then Camby hits a shot like that … it just wasn’t meant to be. But I thought we showed a lot of heart. They needed it more than we did, but we fought just as hard.”
Nash missed a 3-pointer for the lead and Leandro Barbosa, who had hit five of his first six 3-pointers, missed an open 3-point look with 25 seconds left that would have tied it before Denver closed out the game from the line.
Anthony and Allen Iverson combined for 56 points and 24 free throws as Denver went to the line 47 times, compared to 26 for Phoenix. But four of those trips came via four more Phoenix technical fouls, which gives them 11 in the last three games.
The two killers came with 9:24 in the third quarter. Bell and Anthony got tangled up and after Bell was called for a foul, the two jawed at each other and were called for double technicals. Three seconds later, Bell pushed a forearm into Anthony’s back and was called for another foul. Bell stepped back laughing and was hit with a second technical by referee Kevin Fehr.
“All I did was laugh. That’s it. It’s pretty unfortunate and that’s all I want to say,” Bell said.
His teammates had more to say. Nash said the play reminded him of last April, when referee Joey Crawford ejected San Antonio’s Tim Duncan for laughing while he was sitting on the bench. Crawford was later suspended for the rest of the season.
“(Bell) was thrown out for laughing with Amaré and Leandro. He gets thrown out?”
Nash said. “The last ref who did that was suspended. That was really strange, especially in such an important game late in the season."