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Suns respond to poor loss, come up short in double OT after battling

Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) drives past Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

After a brutal loss on Friday in a game they should have won against the Denver Nuggets, the Phoenix Suns entered round two on Saturday with the odds against them.

Devin Booker strained his left hamstring in overtime of that defeat and was out for Saturday’s game.

In a game that many had low expectations for, the Suns played much better and battled. Hard.

The deserved win, however, was neutralized at the end of regulation when Denver’s Jamal Murray hit a ridiculous game-tying three-pointer. After Jae Crowder matched Murray in the extra five minutes with his own iteration to match the score, the Suns fell in double overtime 120-112.

In a game that had 25 lead changes and saw neither team outscore the other by more than four points in any of the four quarters, it would come down to crunch time.

After Friday’s failures there, the Suns (8-7) improved there too. Chris Paul did his part carrying the Suns without Booker.

He had 12 of his 13 assists in the first half and scored clutch buckets at the start of the fourth quarter to keep Denver (9-7) at bay when momentum was slipping out of the Suns’ hands.

Paul’s signature mid-range pull-up with 12 seconds left put Phoenix up three.

That’s where Murray’s shot came, and Suns head coach Monty Williams said postgame he wanted to foul. The problem was that Deandre Ayton defended the ball the entire possession and had five fouls.

Now, the Suns could have still won in regulation if Ayton fouled out. Williams, though, couldn’t have known Ayton would be on the ball the entire time and said even with the benefit of hindsight that he wanted one of his best defensive players on the floor. Like the no-timeout call at the end of regulation on Friday, it was just another weird and unlucky sequence.

Murray’s incredible make took the game to overtime, albeit with four steps that Williams counted for himself postgame.

“I hope they say he traveled, but it ain’t gonna help us. The shot shouldn’t have counted,” Williams said, referring to the league’s last-two-minute report that reviews decisions by the officials at the end of games.

This was a game especially when the Suns needed guys toward the middle and end of the bench to step up and they didn’t. Denver’s bench outscored Phoenix’s 52-23.

That was exemplified in the first overtime when Cam Johnson had to exit with cramps and Ayton fouled out. Replacing them were Abdel Nader and Frank Kaminsky.

Even after Crowder’s heroics in overtime, the game felt doomed for the Suns because of that.

Kaminsky had no chance guarding the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic in double overtime. Whether the Suns sent doubles or not, it didn’t matter and the Nuggets cruised from there.

Williams didn’t really have another choice, as Dario Saric and Damian Jones (health and safety protocols) remain out while Jalen Smith is just a rookie and someone who is played more as a 4 in this stage of his career. Fans called for Crowder’s strength and scaling down as Kaminsky struggled, but Jokic would have simply shot over him and overwhelmed the Suns just as much.

As for doubling?

“We talked about that pregame. If you double him, he’s such a good passer. If you don’t double him against smaller guys, he just punishes you,” Williams said.

When the Suns did double, Jokic was making the right pass, as usual. Another one to not put on the coach.

Ayton fouling out was extra unfortunate because he played terrific defense on Jokic individually and outplayed the MVP candidate when he was out there. Ayton’s post defense on Jokic prior to Paul’s bucket in the last minute of the fourth quarter was perfect and forced an airball.

Ayton had two blocks on Jokic, who is normally a master of forcing defenders out of rhythm with his odd movements.

He wasn’t having any of it, and in turn, that had Jokic unusually off for the majority of the game until Ayton exited.

Ayton finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds. He was the most decisive he’s ever been offensively in the first half, even picking up two traveling turnovers because he was so antsy to get going off the dribble.

Look at this straight-up bully ball here in the post:

How many times, though, have we seen Ayton move away from the basket when he could go up with a shot?

But with this new mindset, he kept his dribble active and finished on the other side.

Jokic’s 29 points and 22 rebounds look the part of a monster night but No. 22 for Phoenix was the better player with worse numbers. Funny how that works, eh?

“That guy’s amazing,” Jokic said postgame of Ayton. “He knows what he needs to do to get better. He stopped me four, five, six times. Give him a lot of credit, he’s a great player.”

Ayton’s now had the best four-game stretch of his career by a mile, and however down Suns fans may feel about losing five of seven should remind themselves how the big fella is playing.

Paul compiled 21 points, nine rebounds and 13 assists in 42 minutes while Crowder had a game-high 45 minutes and 21 points of his own.

Johnson was 3-of-11 from three-point range and said after the game he was trying to combat the cramps throughout the game. He scored 19 points.

The Suns as a team defended much better than Friday, giving up 42 points in the paint the night after allowing 80.

“I was just unbelievably proud of how they competed tonight,” Williams said. “We could have mailed it in coming off a tough one last night and we just gave everything we had.”

After dropping Friday’s game they deservedly lost, the Suns were not rewarded by the basketball gods for doing more than enough to earn a win on Saturday.

Such is life in the NBA and the reality of trying to accomplish what the Suns want to get done.


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