EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns begin season looking out of sorts in loss to Nuggets

Oct 20, 2021, 11:05 PM
Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) looks to pass as Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon, right, de...

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) looks to pass as Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon, right, defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

(AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX — For a team that had what felt like a booster rocket of continuity to start the regular season, the Phoenix Suns in their season opener looked like a team still feeling each other out.

Starting the year against the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night, it was almost like a repeat of last year, when Phoenix’s starters needed time to gel. That required window to marinate led to an 8-8 start, one that almost certainly isn’t coming this season.

Regardless, the 110-98 loss was the byproduct of a Suns team that was hardly recognizable compared to the Western Conference champions.

It’s easy to spot when the Suns aren’t being themselves on both ends. Because of the way the offense flows freely through unselfish ball movement, it creates a consistent cycle of good looks. Defensively, every Phoenix player will almost always make a few efforts per possession that rarely result in any wide-open looks for the opposition.

There were blips of that on each end, but just blips.

“We certainly didn’t have the body movement, ball movement on offense that flattens teams out, breaks them down,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “We didn’t see that consistently tonight.”

The Suns had a 20-point first quarter, where they were in that funk before scoring 38 in the second and at one point jumping out to a 16-point lead. The Nuggets were having their own problems to find a rhythm, but they responded with a great second half while the Suns still looked trapped by their own mistakes.

Denver made six 3s in the third quarter and another five across the remaining 12 minutes. Most of those were open. Booker, Williams and Deandre Ayton all emphasized communication being a problem for the Suns defensively.

“Oh, there was a lot … I think more communication than anything,” Booker said when asked what the defense’s downfall was. “We always say communication trumps everything. We weren’t talking to each other out there and just moving a step behind.”

While that constant barrage of points came from the Nuggets, it felt like a struggle for the Suns to generate offense.

As Suns guard Devin Booker pointed out postgame, the Suns use their defense to help their offense. That’s a big part of their DNA, so when the offense stagnates, they sometimes need the defense to snap ’em out of it.

“Overall, we just didn’t play our game, starting on the defensive end … I said it all of last year, we have to defend,” Booker said.

The team’s best defense just so happened to come in that 38-point second quarter but never reached a high level again, playing a factor in the Suns only scoring 40 points in the second half.

When Denver’s Jeff Green hit back-to-back three-pointers to open the fourth quarter, it put the Nuggets up by nine, and the Suns would then continue to trail by at least seven points the rest of the way. That included a 3:00 stretch beginning at 5:45 left where neither team scored, as Phoenix just couldn’t get anything to fall.

When the Suns’ team effort wasn’t where it needed to be, there was no individual push from Chris Paul and Devin Booker to carry them through. Paul got going in his second shift of the first half, where he will usuually maul opposing second units while playing with the reserves. But that was it in terms of a spark from either guy.

Booker finished 3-of-15 from the field with 12 points and four assists. Paul added 15 points and 10 assists on 6-of-11 shooting. The leader in shot attempts was actually Mikal Bridges, who scored a team-high 16 points off 7-of-16.

The Suns started the game primarily working the offense through Deandre Ayton, which got him involved and off to a good start, but was not through the normal mechanics of the offense. There were a few times the Suns ball-handlers passed up on some open space to prioritize feeding the big man. That winds back to the general hitches in the offense instead of a seamless process.

“I thought he settled us a bit, but again, like some of those plays, even when we scored it didn’t feel like us,” Williams said. “Just didn’t feel great when the ball went through the basket, it was just like heavy lifting tonight.”

Ayton had 13 of his 15 points in the first half. During his one trip to the free throw line, there a mild “pay DA” chant, a nod to Ayton failing to agree to an extension with the Suns before Monday’s deadline.

The fourth-year center spoke after the game for the first time since that passed and said he was disappointed but is focused on making it back to the Finals.

Phoenix’s bench with Landry Shamet (11 points), Cam Johnson (11) and Cam Payne (10) were all involved in one way or the other when the Suns were able to get some momentum. All three were at least plus-9, while the starters got trounced, with Booker at a game-low minus-24.

The Nuggets’ four best players all played well, and that plus the triples were really all it came down to. Both teams turned it over at least 18 times and combined for 37, with points off turnovers going north of 21 for each side.

Nikola Jokic had 27 points and 13 rebounds, Will Barton provided 20 points, six rebounds and five assists and Michael Porter Jr. added 15 points, six rebounds and five assists. Aaron Gordon’s stat line of 12 points, eight rebounds and four assists was a little quieter but he was the glue holding everything together all night.

While the regular 82-game schedule allows far more room to breathe compared to last year’s 72-game sprint, the Suns don’t get that yet in the 2021-22 campaign until after a stretch of three games in four days. They’ll practice on Thursday before flying out to Los Angeles to play the Lakers on Friday, which is followed by a game in Portland versus the Trail Blazers the next day.

It’ll have to be a quick re-grasping of what worked oh so well last season prior to a challenging back-to-back.

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