EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns rounding into form during preseason, fall to Nuggets

Oct 10, 2022, 9:00 PM

Bruce Brown #11of the Denver Nuggets drives against Mikal Bridges #25 of the Phoenix Sun in the fir...

Bruce Brown #11of the Denver Nuggets drives against Mikal Bridges #25 of the Phoenix Sun in the first quarter during a preseason game at Ball Arena on October 10, 2022 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

After the Phoenix Suns’ first preseason game, head coach Monty Williams preached “habit stamina.” It essentially comes down to being more consistent at what makes Suns basketball, Suns basketball.

Avoiding that slippage and finding the sharpness Williams has created the last two-plus years looked necessary, and we saw more of those Suns in Monday’s 107-105 loss against the Denver Nuggets.

A quick box score scan will not endorse this, as the Nuggets sat four of their most important players: Nikola Jokic (wrist), Jamal Murray (hamstring), Aaron Gordon (rest) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (rest). Phoenix’s starters didn’t blow the doors off Denver’s and it was a close game throughout.

The Suns, though, were having one of those nights where the process was more important than the results.

There is a level of crispness Phoenix plays with through its movement offensively and rotations defensively. The maintaining of its shape on both ends was there, particularly for the starting five.

When that happens, more often than not, Deandre Ayton is going to have a great night. That was the case on Monday.

Ayton was 9-of-12 from the field for 19 points with 11 rebounds and three steals.

The high pick-and-rolls were effective as always. Defensively, Ayton was vocal and engaged.

Williams got Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and Ayton all north of 25 minutes by playing the foursome for the entire third quarter.

Phoenix’s depth was limited without Landry Shamet (left hip strain), Cam Payne (right finger sprain), Cam Johnson (right thumb sprain) and Dario Saric (personal reasons).

What was left of the second unit was outscored 29-24 in the fourth quarter after a good first half, and the closing stretch was ultimately the difference in the game. The Suns found a 7-0 mini run to be up two with two minutes to go, and it looked like the final blow before former Suns guard Ish Smith knocked down back-to-back midrange jumpers with under a minute left to seal the deal.

The intrigue wrapped inside the Suns missing their starting power forward and first two guards off the bench, of course, was who took their place.

Torrey Craig got the start for Johnson, a spot that Saric would have been under consideration for too if he wasn’t out. There were also a fair amount of minutes of reserve wing Damion Lee in that position, and he belonged.

The free agent pickup from the Golden State Warriors showed the type of high IQ that was expected to come with his arrival. He’s in the right spot 99 possessions out of 100, and when you are that guy under Williams, there’s a very strong chance you will see the court.

Lee has blended in immediately on one of the NBA’s best defenses, and offensively, all that’s required is his strong floor sense to shine on quick decisions while knocking down just enough 3s to remain a threat. He scored 10 points off the bench.

As for the reserve backcourt, two-way signing Duane Washington Jr. got the nod and his point guard acumen has been impressive given he’s mostly known for his shooting and scoring. He was making enough passes off the initial action to believe there might be something there. In addition, his on-ball defense was sound. Washington dished out six assists and added 10 points in 19 minutes.

We got our first look at guard Josh Okogie, who missed the first two preseason games because of a left hamstring strain. He looked the part in his first game back, rushing himself a bit on some drives that led to four turnovers. His strong defense, however, was as advertised.

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