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Suns move 1½ games ahead of Rockets

DENVER (AP) -- The Phoenix Suns finally stopped watching the
scoreboard, and started paying attention to the Denver Nuggets.

Shawn Marion had 27 points and 10 rebounds as the Suns increased
their lead in the race for the final playoff spot in the Western
Conference with a 98-78 victory Tuesday night over the Denver
Nuggets.

Reserve Joe Johnson 23 points, and the Suns (41-36) now lead by
1½ games over the Houston Rockets (40-38) in the playoff chase. The
Rockets lost 81-66 to Portland.

"I told my guys, but they said, 'Don't worry about that,
Coach,'" said Phoenix coach Frank Johnson, about his team's
scoreboard watching. "I'm glad they got something to get them
going for a stretch."

It was Marion's 37th double-double. He has 23 games of 20-plus
points and has scored 20 or more points in 28 of 42 games.

"Every once in a while guys check the board," Marion said.
"Once we saw that they lost, we went out there and got a win, a
win we needed."

Juwan Howard had 15 points for Denver, which lost its fourth
straight game. Nene Hilario added 14 points for the Nuggets, who
shot 32 percent, their fourth-lowest of the season.

"We are always struggling, struggling, struggling," Denver
coach Jeff Bzdelik said. "We don't make enough shots throughout
the course of the game, and then there are all the turnovers and
missed opportunities."

Marion had a layup and a two-handed dunk in the first two
minutes of the fourth quarter as Phoenix extended its lead to
72-64. After Marion's dunk, the Nuggets managed only a basket by
Devin Brown basket over the next four minutes.

While Denver struggled, Joe Johnson scored four points, Stephon
Marbury had a 3-pointer and Marion another dunk to put the Suns
ahead 81-66. Joe Johnson added seven more points in the last 4:10
to seal the win.

"I was just trying to make plays tonight," Joe Johnson said.
"I feel like if I penetrate and get picked up, somebody will have
an open shot."

Denver went 8-for-21 in the third quarter after shooting 25
percent in the first half, and narrowed the gap to 61-58 on two
free throws by Rodney White. But baskets by Marion and Joe Johnson,
and Bo Outlaw's jumper that narrowly beat the shot clock in the
last 2:55, allowed the Suns to take a 67-62 lead into the fourth
quarter.

The Nuggets, who didn't have a field goal in the last 6:15 of
the first half, made only three of 20 shots in the second quarter.
Phoenix capitalized, with Marion scoring nine points to build a
49-40 lead at the half.

The Suns closed the half with a 7-1 run that included a layup by
Joe Johnson and Marion's 3-pointer.

The game was tied at 24 after the first quarter as both teams
shot under 37 percent. Shammond Williams converted a free throw in
the last 10 seconds for Denver after Jake Voskuhl had given the
Suns the lead with a dunk.

"It was just one of those night for myself and the team," said
Howard, who shot 4-for-16. "Shooting such a low percentage makes
it even tougher to beat a team like Phoenix."

Game notes
Jake Tsakalidis earned his second straight start after a
12-point, seven-rebound game against the Los Angeles Lakers. ...
Marbury outjumped the taller Hilario and Howard for a loose ball in
the first quarter and went coast-to-coast for a dunk. ... Phoenix
won the season series 3-1. ... The final five opponents for Phoenix
have a 62-percent winning percentage compared to 41 percent for
Houston's four remaining opponents. ... Marcus Camby sat out the
game with flu-like symptoms. ... Denver is assured of finishing
with no better than the second-worst record in the NBA, and will
pick no lower than fifth in the draft.

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