EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Suns recover from loss of Booker, falter late in OT thriller vs. Nuggets
The Phoenix Suns on Christmas night nearly picked up what would have been one of their signature wins of the season. But their rough December remains unforgiving.
Phoenix lost an overtime thriller in Denver against the Nuggets 128-125 despite being in multiple positions to win the game toward the end. This came on the same Sunday evening in which Devin Booker, fresh off a three-game absence from a sore groin, injured himself four minutes in and didn’t return. A few minutes later, Phoenix was down 15 in another poor opening quarter to place alongside a handful this month.
And somehow, the Suns stumbled upon their fight that has been missing and rumbled through the Nuggets on a 23-3 run to lead by five. That position in the driver’s seat early on was one they would hold up until crunch time thanks to some great urgency on the defensive end.
Phoenix was up eight when the clock struck under five minutes remaining, but as Chris Paul got his usual mini-rest in that portion of the game, the Nuggets got three consecutive stops and scores to be within one.
The Suns called a timeout and got Paul back into the game less than 90 seconds into his breather. He quickly hit a midrange jumper and answered a Denver bucket by assisting a Landry Shamet 3.
From less than two minutes to go on, the Suns had six separate possessions through regulation to score either with the lead or at a tie game. All they got was one Deandre Ayton free throw after two possessions went awry, Paul missed a middy he almost never does in that situation and Mikal Bridges even more rarely brainfarted with an offensive foul at 4.1 seconds and a tie score on the scoreboard.
The game went to overtime, where Nikola Jokic’s mastery eventually took over. He assisted or scored nine of the Nuggets’ first 11 points of overtime to put them up six at 1:43 to go and finished with 41 points, 15 rebounds and 15 assists.
Phoenix actually got three more cracks at it even with the momentum completely gone.
Shamet missed a 3 with the Suns down one at 31 seconds to go, and when he got back on defense, he took what was called a charge at first on Aaron Gordon’s poster dunk of the year.
AARON GORDON POSTER 🔥🤯
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) December 26, 2022
The refs, however, were able to review the call thanks to a rule that lets them look with under two minutes to go in regulation or overtime if there is doubt on whether or not the defender was in the restricted area. Once the review is underway, the officials can also change the call if they deem it a defensive foul instead. That’s what they did on Sunday.
Now, should there have been doubt Shamet was outside the restricted area in real time? No. But they got the right call.
Gordon, however, missed the free throw, only for Denver to rebound it and get more free tosses. Gordon made one of two, Paul ran down to get a midrange bucket, Jamal Murray was fouled and then he was only able to convert on one of two. All told, the Suns took a timeout and still had some hope down three with 11 seconds remaining.
That gave the Suns one more shot, one Shamet missed on the sideline out of bounds play. If you’re counting at home with me and wondering where the third chance is I mentioned earlier, it was grabbed by Damion Lee on the offensive glass, only for Bridges to turn it over when trying to hit Shamet. That iced it.
Phoenix got monster contributions off its bench.
It was lifted by another strong Shamet performance that continues his best stretch with the Suns.
Since arriving in Phoenix two offseasons ago, Shamet has battled with staying aggressive and playing a brand of downhill basketball that lacks any hesitation. Critically, he has to find the balance within that of not pressing. In a role without consistent playing time, that can be hard to overcome, and he’s proven that.
But in these games without Booker, he has found the right mindset and tempo that helped him put together 31 points in Denver. It tied his career high he set earlier this week.
Shamet has some good stuff going right now, puts the ball on the floor and finishes with a floater, comes off the DHO double for the three and then a side step three towards the end of the half. pic.twitter.com/iBgIzir4tX
— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) December 26, 2022
While a four-game sample size isn’t enough to suggest he’s completely turned the corner, it’s the longest streak of his Suns career in double figures. That’s now 90 points across those four games, more than the 82 he scored in the 12 contests before that spurt.
Lee added 18 points, nailing four 3s to give him and Shamet (seven triples) a combined 11.
The bottom line for the Suns over this month when it comes to individual play has been not getting enough from their most important players outside of Booker, the types of guys who have to step up when the team is in a funk (and are paid as such).
While Paul’s stat line of 17 points and 16 assists is impressive, he shot 6-of-17 from the field, 5-of-10 at the foul line and wasn’t able to cement a game late he has ended like clockwork the last decade and a half.
Ditto for Ayton’s 22 points and 16 rebounds because he made a handful of costly mistakes in key situations with six turnovers.
And as for Bridges, he’s a hyper-efficient player who is going through the worst shooting stretch of his career. In his last 10 games prior to the holiday, Bridges shot 36.1%, a dip affected by his increase in aggression and 14.7 shots per game.
Most NBA players go through a rough 10-game patch or so every year but not him.
After shooting 5-for-12 on Sunday, Bridges has now failed to shoot at least 50% in five straight games. This was after an 11-for-18 (61.5%) performance on Dec. 15 snapped a similar streak of five contests. For reference, Bridges only had a run of sub-50% shooting nights in five consecutive fixtures once in the last two seasons, and now these two this year have happened in the same month.
He is adapting to a higher usage role, a role he has never really had in his career before, even dating back to college. But it’s what the Suns need from him now and he has to start adjusting better.
Gordon produced 28 points and 13 rebounds for Denver while Murray scored another 26 points.
The Suns have now lost eight of their last 11 games.