EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns show resiliency against Nuggets to earn league-leading 5th win

Jan 1, 2021, 11:37 PM | Updated: 11:43 pm
Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul, back left, watches his shot over Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic,...

Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul, back left, watches his shot over Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, back right, and guard Gary Harris that went in with 7.3 seconds left in an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, in Denver. The Suns won 106-103. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The Phoenix Suns are now a league-leading 5-1 after a 106-103 win over the Denver Nuggets on Friday, closing out a stretch of five games in seven days and a challenging back-to-back in Utah and Denver.

It was a resilient win as well, one fully worth celebrating and getting some momentum from. While that was certainly part of the experience, so too was wing Jae Crowder getting on his All-Star backcourt for making it harder than it needed to be.

With under two minutes to go in the third quarter, the Suns up 16 and a bench-heavy lineup in place for the Nuggets, Phoenix proceeded to turn the ball over five times in two minutes. It was a 7-0 Denver run, one that came after head coach Monty Williams put Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton back in the game alongside Devin Booker, Cam Johnson and Crowder. If it went well enough, they’d put the game away. Instead, they missed their shot, with two turnovers each for Booker and Ayton, along with one for Paul.

Now, the Suns had to grind through the end of a tough stretch of games, and the Nuggets predictably came storming back. The Suns would have to really earn the win, but it could have been avoided entirely. That’s part of the collective mindset the Suns seem to share in what they want to accomplish this season.

Paul said after the game that Crowder got on him and Booker, and Paul agreed, saying they have to be better.

“These growing pains for us … we want to learn in these situations and win at the same time,” Paul noted.

They still managed to achieve that.

The Suns used a surge of seven three-pointers, eight if you count Langston Galloway’s three-point shooting foul, to lead by two after a first quarter where they were still getting assimilated.

Paul planted his flag in the game and through the Nuggets’ chest from there, roasting poor rookie guard Facundo Campazzo and seizing back the tempo.

Phoenix had an 11-point halftime edge.

After an open of the third quarter where it felt like Denver was taking back control, Booker stepped in and scored 10 points in three minutes to get that aforementioned 16-point advantage.

The mess was followed by a game-saving stretch via Ayton. He played four-and-a-half minutes at the start of the fourth quarter, affecting nearly every possession, all while looking rather tired.

It will be logged as four points, three rebounds and a block but it was a monumental shift to keep the Suns afloat in winning time.

“He was aggressive on both ends of the court and we need him to be like that,” Paul said. “Some things that he does do not show up on the stat sheet … there’s so many ways he can impact the game and I think we’re starting to see that.”

“His ability to really rule the paint in moments was huge for us, he was a bit of an anchor on both ends of the floor,” Williams added.

Ayton had his best game of the season and one of the best of his career, finishing with 22 points and 11 rebounds.

From there, the Nuggets came roaring back to eventually pull ahead of the Suns by one with 2:41 remaining. That’s where Paul and Booker did just enough to amend for their gaffes at the end of the third.

Paul drew two free throws and then Booker made a heads-up play off a fortunate deflection to hit a three, putting Phoenix up four at the 1:37 mark.

It got down to a two-point Suns lead with under 50 seconds to go, and with Booker looking to ice the game, he committed his eighth and biggest turnover of the game.

Booker drove in the lane and assumed the help defense was coming from the weak-side corner, as it normally does. Booker is usually terrific at making that read, and it was there, but not for as long as he thought. He threw the ball right in the path of the Nuggets’ Will Barton after Barton recovered back to his man in time.

Denver went on a fastbreak off that steal and Gary Harris earned a foul call on Mikal Bridges.

The call, though, was suspect. The timing of Bridges’ swipe at the ball didn’t 1) line up with when Harris lost the ball and 2) Bridges didn’t even appear to make contact.

The Suns could challenge. If the call stood, the Nuggets would be shooting the potentially game-tying free throws with under 30 seconds left. It was a crucial choice.

Williams wanted to keep his timeouts. Challenges are rarely successful, especially on calls like that, as Williams noted postgame. The game was still going to have two moments where Williams could use his timeouts. But then his point guard Paul talked him into it.

“We got eye contact and he’s like, ‘Coach why not?!'” Williams said.

It was a wise decision. The call was reversed, and while the Suns now had a jump ball instead of a rebound, Ayton won it. Then, Paul, the most clutch player in the NBA statistically last season, showed Suns fans what that’s all about.

Paul’s fallaway sealed the game and a spot atop the Western Conference.

“He’s a leader and he’s not afraid to take those shots,” Williams said.

“The ability and will to take those shots is huge for us.”

Paul ended the night with 21 points, five rebounds and six assists.

Booker had 22 points on 9-of-17 shooting but with just two assists to those eight turnovers. The turnovers have now become at least a trend, an odd one Booker has avoided in his entire career despite the awful team and teammate circumstances he’s previously faced. Even with the adjustment period to Paul and new pieces, it’s still strange. He’s now got 35 in six games.

That’s an important note to close it on because the play of Booker and Paul has been underwhelming offensively to begin the year. Paul made All-NBA last year and Booker was good enough to, and yet, neither has reached that dominant height six games in.

This team was going to thrive off those two demolishing defenses together.

Or so we thought.

Could they actually thrive without that at times? Is it more of an added incentive instead of a requirement?

We have learned the answer to that question already.

“That’s just really poor,” Williams said of that third-quarter collapse. “But we bounce back. The level of resiliency to go through that and go into the fourth quarter — we didn’t score a ton in the fourth but we scored enough to win and we got enough stops to win the game.”

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