EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns run into formidable test, fall to Nuggets

Jan 11, 2023, 10:28 PM | Updated: 10:34 pm
Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, right, knocks the ball away from Phoenix Suns center Bismack Bi...

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, right, knocks the ball away from Phoenix Suns center Bismack Biyombo in the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The Phoenix Suns came in with the same approach on Wednesday night as they did in their last game, a stunning 125-113 victory over the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday.

Their opponent, though, the Denver Nuggets, did not have commonalities with the Warriors.

While Golden State didn’t take the shorthanded Suns 100% seriously until it was in pursuit of the game across the fourth quarter, the Nuggets treated them with respect from the jump. And that level of respect put the Suns at an extreme deficit, one they could never realistically make up in a 126-97 loss.

For the second straight night, there was no Deandre Ayton (left ankle sprain), Devin Booker (left groin strain), Jae Crowder (not with team), Cam Johnson (right meniscus tear), Chris Paul (right hip soreness), Cam Payne (right foot sprain) or Landry Shamet (right hip soreness).

And the Suns’ limitations showed far more on Wednesday.

The Nuggets (28-13) presented a playoff level of execution defensively, using a pressure variation to force the Suns (21-22) into making difficult passes. These are rotation feeds that guys like Booker and Paul can sleepwalk through to systematically break down a defense after just one pass but those guys are back in Phoenix rehabbing.

So, when Denver’s Nikola Jokic is defending the ball screen high and cutting off the space for Duane Washington Jr. or Mikal Bridges, that is a grand ol’ learning experience for those two. And even when the right pass was made, Denver’s rotations off it had the requisite amount of urgency to cover the space.

Washington made the right reads at first but the pressure eventually got to him. Denver was not going to be like Golden State and wait until the mid-fourth quarter to pick him up full court. Nuggets guard Jamal Murray forced Washington into an eight-second violation early and Washington had a few other sloppy turnovers.

Offensively, Denver understood the assignment by playing with pace and moving the ball quickly. It was taking on a shorthanded squad that had just greatly exerted itself the night before and was playing at elevation.

The Nuggets found a good rhythm off this and started using that to get into some pull-up 3s that went down for the likes of Murray and Bones Hyland. A 24-8 surge to begin the second quarter had Denver up 22 after Phoenix had done well to hang around.

To go for a cross-sport comparison here, when Colt McCoy was in at quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals the last two years, it was crucial for Arizona put itself in the position of not chasing the game. Play smart, take care of the ball and manage the game.

Outside of the handful of bad turnovers by the Suns, they did this. Denver just showed up with a great mindset and treated the fixture like Paul, Booker and their other hobbled running mates were all out there.

The Suns’ offense statistically was still great in the first half. They assisted 18 of their 22 baskets and shot 51%. But the Nuggets were at 57%, knocked down 11 3s and had 16 points off turnovers.

When looking at Ayton, Paul and Shamet, it’s not clear which of those three in the day-to-day diagnosis grouping could play on Friday in Minnesota versus the Timberwolves. That made it important for head coach Monty Williams to pull the plug early for Mikal Bridges and Torrey Craig if the game got out of hand, two guys he will need in the wing rotation for the third game in four days on the road regardless of who is healthy enough to give it a go.

Once the Nuggets kept their lead around the 20-30 range in the third quarter and beyond, Williams wisely let that pair rest for the fourth quarter. Bridges ended up at 30 minutes after 40 last night and Craig, who was questionable for Tuesday’s game because of an ankle sprain, played 23 after 33.

Craig shot well against his former squad with a 6-of-6 shooting performance for 16 points and five rebounds. Bridges was 3-of-10 for seven points with five rebounds and four assists after two of his better games this year.

Washington had a rough go. It bears repeating that this is a guy who didn’t do much ball-handling for the Indiana Pacers as a rookie and arrived in Phoenix this year to be utilized like a combo guard. Wednesday was an excellent trial by fire for him to get a real idea of the type of defenses the Suns see in hyper-competitive games and seeing it through the lens of floor general. He scored eight points and shot 3-of-14 with five assists and five turnovers in 24 minutes.

The Suns signed guard Saben Lee to a 10-day contract on Wednesday and he got some run in the second half.

The back-to-back MVP Jokic looked like just that. In just 28 minutes he managed 21 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists on 10-of-15 from the field.

If you pull up his last two seasons compared to this one, this year’s production is somehow on pace to be the best of the three.

He’s averaging a remarkable 9.7 assists per game as a center, which would be by far the most by a 5 ever. Jokic’s true shooting percentage entering Wednesday sat at a redonkulous 69.1% after 66.1% and 64.7% the two MVP years, respectively. The best true shooting percentage ever by a player posting at least 25 points a night was Stephen Curry’s 67.5% mark in 2017-18, per Stathead. Jokic’s mark would best that.

With Denver chasing the No. 1 seed, get ready for Jokic to be in the conversation again around awards season, and don’t be surprised by a three-peat.

Murray, who has been on a roll in the last eight games, exited the game in the early fourth quarter with an apparent ankle injury. Hopefully that was just a slight tweak for a guy finally getting back to the form we know he’s capable of after his long road back from knee surgery. He was one of five Nuggets starters in double figures with 16 points.

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