EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns show great energy for 2nd straight night, fall to Nuggets

Feb 8, 2020, 11:25 PM | Updated: 11:34 pm
Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) dunks against the defense of Denver Nuggets forward Jerami G...
Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) dunks against the defense of Denver Nuggets forward Jerami Grant (9) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)
(AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns haven’t had enough competitive losses this season like Saturday’s 117-108 defeat at the hands of the Denver Nuggets. Or at least it’s felt like they haven’t.

On the second game of a back-to-back at home, the Suns competed and traded shots with one of the league’s best teams, where the consistency of an established, great Nuggets team was the only real difference.

Deandre Ayton had one of his best games in a Suns uniform, Devin Booker’s off-scoring night was supplanted by an outstanding playmaking performance that is not represented by nine assists and Kelly Oubre Jr.’s energy was there even when he wasn’t as efficient as you’d want him to be.

The Nuggets just kept making key plays in a close game that never leaned too far in one direction until the end.

Whether it was a Suns turnover that led to free points in transition, a huge three-pointer to halt Phoenix’s momentum or Jamal Murray hitting another shot, the answer was always there.

In an active Saturday night crowd, you could feel it in the reaction from them when the Nuggets were able to respond a handful of times during important stretches.

Some were those aforementioned threes, where Denver was 11-of-28 (39.3%), but there were also five or six small but terrible mistakes that led to easy points for Denver.

“We just had live-ball turnovers that ended up into buckets for them, a couple of mistakes on free-throw boxouts — there was just a number of bam-bam-bam, things like that,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said.

All that and a barrage from Murray of 36 points while hitting 14 of his 17 shots was enough for a terrific Nuggets team to beat a young, energetic Suns team that was up for the challenge.

In a game where there was no double-digit lead for either side, Denver scoring 28, 27, 28 and 34 points in the four quarters represented that level-headed play.

That’s where Williams after the game mentioned a 17-point second quarter from the Suns where Denver closed the quarter on a 9-0 run.

Because of that, it looked like Williams didn’t trust his bench enough to go stretches without the team’s big three.

Ayton played a career-high 42 minutes, the fourth time in the last eight games he’s reached 40, while Oubre also reached 42 and Booker got to 37. Williams was able to do that in theory because of getting them all rest in the fourth quarter of a blowout the night prior, but the team especially looked tired in the back-half of the fourth quarter, and Williams said as much.

Ayton’s activity level was absolutely off the charts in this one. His hands and body were active defensively, he was rolling hard nearly every time off slip-screen actions offensively and he was aggressive enough in the post.

The productivity of 28 points, 19 rebounds, two assists and three steals matched the high, high level of play from him.

A tweak Williams added in the Houston win was those slip screens, which are where Ayton bails on the contact of stopping the on-ball defender and instead rolls to the rim quicker.

The Suns had a ton of success with this, particularly Saturday night, where Booker had one of his best nights passing ever in a Suns uniform.

Booker’s 5-of-16 shooting was a minus, sure, but don’t let that fool you into thinking he wasn’t good in this game. He was making the right read and difficult passes nearly every time out of those looks.

The Ayton rolls created loads of defensive gravity where Booker and Ricky Rubio were consistently swinging the ball to the weak side. The plays there, and the shots the Suns missed at a 9-for-32 (28.1%) clip from three-point range, was likely the game.

“[Ayton] was diving tonight (but) it wasn’t as open because the paint was so crowded,” Williams said. “We were kicking it to the weak side and that’s where I don’t think the quality of shot was as wide-open as tonight because of the way they close out.”

“We missed some open looks,” Williams also said. “Last night, everything was dropping. Tonight, we just missed a ton of threes.”

Setting those up, though, speaks to the Suns finding much more offensive rhythm in the last two games than they have been able to in the last two months.

When asked about Ayton slipping, Rubio spoke to how difficult it has been for the Suns to find balance offensively.

“Yeah, adjusting in the middle of the season is not easy,” he said. “A guy like him who demands the ball a lot in a system already where already Kelly and Book already want the ball in a different kind of way.

“So we’re trying to figure (it) out on the fly but I think the last two games have been really good. [Ayton] really being active, setting good screens but at the same time reading the defense to do what we have to do.”

That answer that was supposed to be about Ayton and still was in the end spoke to the growing left for the Suns, both as individuals and as a group, that a team like Denver is already far past. Williams said pregame that Nuggets head coach Mike Malone told him earlier this season that the Suns remind him of his Denver team from 2-3 years ago.

Ayton himself discussing his defense against Murray brought up that while he doesn’t know how long Murray and Nikola Jokic have been a pick-and-roll duo, you can see the chemistry.

That’s something that’s just not possible for Phoenix to have with the lack of continuity, and they’ll unfortunately lose some games along the way this season because of that, as we’ve seen.

But as long as they build it through efforts like the past two nights, it’ll come more naturally and they’ll be just fine.

“Think we found something that works, and that’s just playing hard,” Booker said.

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