EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns’ crunch-time issues persist in frustrating OT loss to Nuggets

Jan 23, 2021, 12:37 AM
Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) drives between Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray and Monte Morr...

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) drives between Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray and Monte Morris (11) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 22, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

It looked like the Phoenix Suns were finally moving past it.

Against the Denver Nuggets on Friday night they had 34 points in each of the first two quarters and were up 14 at the half. The starting lineup, at long last, looked crisp offensively. Chris Paul had 14 assists. Devin Booker scored 19 points. Mikal Bridges added 17. Deandre Ayton compiled 12 points and seven rebounds.

The Suns’ four best players were all playing well both individually and as a collective. This was the breakthrough they had been looking for all year.

Then, the wheels fell off in the second half and overtime.

Phoenix posted 58 points in those remaining 29 minutes. Eight turnovers in the fourth quarter played a part in the game going to overtime. Paul (four) and Booker (two) had six of them.

And while that was happening, the Nuggets kept coming. They were relentless in playing downhill and getting to the basket. The Suns had no answer for that all night, giving up an astounding 80 points in the paint in a 130-126 loss that was as much of a “what just happened?” defeat as it could have been.

“We should have never been in that position,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said of the game going to overtime.

Williams saw his defense not getting between the Nuggets’ dribble-handoffs and the basket, going over screens and allowing Denver to get going off the dribble. Denver scored 37 points in the third quarter.

“That’s something that we gotta get much better at tomorrow,” Williams said, alluding to the rematch coming on Saturday.

From that third quarter on, it was a tight game, but the Suns did enough to be up four with two minutes left after Paul contributed six of the Suns’ next eight points.

On the next two offensive possessions, however, Paul missed a shot and then turned the ball over. In a tie game with 47 seconds left and the ball in Denver’s hands after Denver took a timeout, the Suns got a stop and Booker decided to push.

The sixth-year guard likely thought he was in a 2-for-1 situation, but not only did he get his shot off with only 25.9 seconds left, he also missed the layup he thought he got fouled on.

Going the other way, the Nuggets didn’t call a timeout and Jamal Murray missed with under three seconds left.

Paul grabbed the rebound, and with two timeouts left, the obvious move was to call one to advance the ball.

The 10-time All-Star, though, had to take a dribble after Denver’s Will Barton swiped at the ball. Teams are not allowed to advance the ball once it is dribbled, and Paul got a look at the clock only after that reactionary play to dribble.

Paul decided to keep going instead of calling a timeout anyway and getting an inbounds play set from the backcourt. He hucked a half-court shot that he missed, sending the game to overtime.

“That’s on me. That was the dumbest play,” Paul said. “I didn’t know what was on the clock. I gotta call a timeout. I caught it on the run, then I looked at the clock. By that time, I had taken a dribble. I told coach my bad. I don’t usually make those mistakes. I gotta call a timeout so we can get a better shot.”

Williams also could have called the timeout from the sideline in what he called a bang-bang play. He acknowledged he should have but that he also trusts Paul in that moment.

In overtime, the Nuggets scored 16 points, nearly matching the Suns’ 19 in the entirety of the fourth quarter.

The most notable event of those five minutes was an offensive rebound by Booker. He tipped the ball to Cam Johnson, who made one of the plays of the game to recover the ball and find Ayton for a bucket, but Booker landed awkwardly and injured his hamstring.

Williams got a look at Booker hobbling back down the court as Ayton prepared for his free throw and quickly subbed Booker out for Cameron Payne. Booker did not return.

“We will probably be without Book so we gotta be even more diligent about ball movement,” Williams said while answering an unrelated question to Booker’s health, indicating Booker will likely miss Saturday’s encore.

Booker finished with 31 points, five rebounds and five assists. Paul couldn’t roll off the 14 assists into many more, logging only one additional assist after the first half and shooting 5-of-15 from the field. Ayton had his third straight terrific outing, logging 27 points and 13 rebounds. Bridges ended the game with 24 points.

The Nuggets played one heck of a game and looked the part of being the Western Conference Finalist they were last season. Five Denver players scored at least 17 points: Nikola Jokic (31), Gary Harris (19), Murray (18), Barton (17) and Monte Morris (17).

The Nuggets had 32 assists and nine turnovers. Sure, it’s a frustrating loss for the Suns in another close game and they weren’t on their A-game defensively, but it is absolutely one of those losses where the opponent requires a tip of the cap.

After putting the hat back on, though, the clear picture is that the Suns’ crunch-time failures continue. They escaped with a win after them on Wednesday in Houston but weren’t so lucky on Friday.

The Suns are now minus-23 in the 41 crunch-time minutes NBA Stats has logged for them, which ranks 29th in the NBA.

They can’t have serious playoff aspirations until that gets fixed.

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