Both the Denver Nuggets and Phoenix Suns will control their playoff fate regardless of the result of this matchup. Denver, though, certainly is in the more enviable position.
Either the Nuggets will clinch a postseason berth or the Suns will take a big step closer to getting one Saturday in Phoenix.
Denver (34-28) is 1 1/2 games ahead of the Suns (33-30) and Utah with a game in hand on those teams, who are tied for the Western Conference's eighth and final playoff spot. Since they own the season series tiebreaker with Phoenix, having won the first two meetings, a Nuggets victory Saturday would mean the Suns can't catch them for one of the West's last two available playoff berths.
"If we get out there and take care of business, we'll be cemented into the playoffs," guard Arron Afflalo told the team's official website, "and anything can happen from there."
If Phoenix loses, it may fall a game behind the Jazz, who host an Orlando team missing Dwight Howard on Saturday night. However, the Suns could move back into a tie with Utah on Tuesday when those teams meet, and they would have the edge for the No. 8 seed because they've won that season series. That means if Phoenix beats Denver, it could punch its ticket to the playoffs with another win Tuesday.
Houston remains in the mix, a game behind Phoenix and Utah, but the Suns would own the tiebreaker over the Rockets -- a better conference record -- if they win their next two contests.
"I don't like to term these must-win games," coach Alvin Gentry said. "Every game you have to go out and play and see what happens. We still have to line up Saturday and play Denver."
The Suns are looking to avoid going back-to-back seasons without a playoff berth for the first time since a three-year drought from 1986-88.
Denver hasn't missed the postseason since 2003 but has advanced past the first round only once in that span.
The Nuggets have won five straight in this series, averaging 120.0 points, though four of those games were in Denver. They had a 12-game losing streak in Phoenix before winning their most recent visit, 116-97 on March 10, 2011.
Afflalo missed that matchup but has averaged 27.0 points in his last three games against the Suns.
Denver has won seven in a row overall when Afflalo has scored at least 20, but he was held to 12 in a 104-98 loss to the visiting Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday.
The Suns beat the playoff-bound Clippers 93-90 in Phoenix the following night.
"We found a way to hang around when we could have gone south a lot of moments tonight," said Steve Nash, who had six turnovers. "But we hung in there and found a way to just scrap and claw -- you know, big win."
Nash has 9,887 assists and needs four to pass Oscar Robertson for fifth place on the career list. He's looking to avoid going three straight games without reaching double figures in assists for the first time since November 2010.
The Suns have alternated wins and losses in their last seven overall but are 12-3 at home since the All-Star break.
Denver is 6-10 on the road since Feb. 14, and three of its four remaining games are outside Colorado.