Suns ride strong defense, bench scoring to win over Nuggets
PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns aren’t going to be consistent this season with so much youth across the roster, but on some nights, we continue to get sneak peeks of the team’s long-term identity.
Through a combination of defensive ability, length and athleticism across a majority of the rotation, they can absolutely wreak havoc on that end of the floor through switching and loads of activity.
That’s against even some of the best teams in the NBA, like the Denver Nuggets, the top team in the Western Conference standings.
Without Devin Booker for the third straight game, the Suns were able to ride that defensive buzz and some great scoring contributions off the bench to a 102-93 win.
Kelly Oubre Jr. tied his career-high in scoring with 26 points and Richaun Holmes added 14. On his own, Oubre’s 26 outscored Denver’s entire bench production of 25.
The Suns entered Saturday night leading the league in steals per game in everyone’s last five outings at 11.8 and ended up with 11 against Denver. That resulted in 26 points off turnovers for the Suns, which wound up heavily playing into the overall difference in the game.
The Nuggets were aware of it. Head coach Mike Malone brought that exact stat of steal averages up before the game, but even good teams that prepare for that type of defense can still be overwhelmed by it.
For a team starting three rookies, Phoenix’s perimeter switching looked terrific. By simply switching with aggression, the Suns were able to contain space that Nuggets wanted to use to get inside the lane.
That’s the key to their concept, according to Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov.
“That defensive coverage requires a lot of energy and dedication to get done,” he said. Oubre mentioned the Suns embracing physicality more while De’Anthony Melton also said they were communicating well too.
It’s challenging for Denver (28-13) to advance the ball through passes when the Suns (11-33) aggressively switch because the likes of Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Holmes, Josh Jackson, Melton, Oubre and T.J Warren are so long and active that they’ll punish them with deflections and turnovers.
Even when players like Quincy Acy, Elie Okobo and Troy Daniels are in, as long as they are working hard and being attentive, they can sustain a lot of what Denver does by sticking with the principles.
Once some of the switching occurs, there will be mismatches, but some of these young Suns can both survive and thrive in those situations.
Jackson was battling with Nuggets power forward Paul Millsap and Ayton had no problem tracking ball-handlers with the shot clock winding down. He had a few of his signature blocks defending point guards on Denver’s Jamal Murray.
And when the Nuggets’ MVP candidate Nikola Jokic was able to get space and attack the rim on one occasion off the dribble, four different Suns contested and blocked the shot.
While Jokic was able to get going and finish with 23 points and 10 rebounds, Murray did not. He shot 4-of-17 from the field for 12 points.
The Suns remembered the last time he was in Talking Stick Resort Arena when he dropped 46.
“Forty-six was way too much,” Melton said. “Anybody comes in here, drops 46 on our home court, it’s kind of disrespectful so we just took that mindset, we just went out there and we were aggressive and we stayed after it.”
On offense, it was more of the precise execution and rhythm of Kokoskov’s motion-heavy offense clicking nicely into place. The Suns had 29 assists on 38 made field goals with only nine turnovers, including a career-high 10 assists from Melton.
The rookie ran most of the crunch-time offense to a decent amount of success, being able to get mismatches off switches for himself and make the right play. He only scored two points but was monumental in the game with his playmaking and defense, where he also racked up four steals.
Ayton had a loud 22 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks, keeping his activity up and playing with the aggression that will make Suns fans grin from ear to ear.
The Suns controlled the game from the jump. They held a double-digit lead for the majority of it, and most importantly, were ready for the Nuggets when they came knocking.
Denver had a handful of runs and opportunities to come back. Due to either timeouts by Kokoskov to settle everyone down, big answers from the Suns or missed shots by the Nuggets, it never happened or even got close to happening. It was just “one of those nights” on both sides of the ball.
It was also another “one of those nights” because of the energy the Suns played with. That same team has shown up a few times over the course of the season, but in no surprise, the Suns are inconsistent in bringing it.
That energy has led Ayton to proclaim after those games a time or two they can take on any team in the league with that, and against a team 15 games over .500, they did just that.
“Just competing, having trust and playing hard,” Ayton said after the win. “That’s it.
“We were the aggressors today and that was the main part of it and we’ve got to keep doing that.”