Durant returns to form, Suns drop level in win vs. shorthanded Nuggets

Mar 31, 2023, 11:30 PM

PHOENIX — Much like the 2020-21 season with a young Phoenix Suns team lacking playoff experience, this iteration of the Suns will take as many opportunities as it can get at a postseason tune-up now that Kevin Durant is back in the lineup.

The Denver Nuggets, Friday’s guests in Phoenix, did not grant that.

Nuggets starters Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (non-COVID illness), Nikola Jokic (right calf tightness), Jamal Murray (left knee injury management) and Michael Porter Jr. (left heel injury management) were all out on the second game of a back-to-back and the formality of a result played out that way in basketball form, 100-93.

Denver’s other players, though, did provide a brief scare. Phoenix at one point in the third quarter led by 27 but got too comfortable and had it cut all the way down to five early in the fourth quarter. The Suns had a few bad turnovers and gave Denver some easy transition baskets, which let the Nuggets know the game wasn’t over when it felt like it was.

Suns head coach Monty Williams referred to it as the team dropping its level.

“We dropped our standard in the third quarter. That was it,” he said. “And what I told them was we don’t have enough games to do that. We’ve got five games left, so every time we step on the floor it’s gotta be with great attention and intention.

“We talk about our scale being from 7-10, not 1-10 and I thought it dropped below seven in the third quarter. …  We’re grateful for every win but we know we have to play at a high level every time we step on the floor as far as focus and attention to detail and that’s hard to do but we have the guys that can do it.”

From there, Denver got some confidence and made a lot of shots to turn the result live again. We’ve all seen that process unfold in basketball before at all levels.

“We just got complacent, got relaxed,” Suns guard Devin Booker said. “And they didn’t. Usually when a team is down guys, those other guys step up to the opportunity and want to prove themselves and those guys did a good job of that tonight.

Phoenix was unable to flip a switch back on to quickly end any threats so it could relax the rest of the way. Denver was within four at 3:23 to go and had two open 3-pointers not fall on its next possession to potentially have it at a one-point affair. Booker scored on a drive on the Suns’ next chance, a five-point swing to put them up six at 1:55 remaining.

The Nuggets got their 18th and 19th second-chance points off a putback before a Josh Okogie 3 at 45 seconds to go was the dagger.

Denver goes from the best of the West to a borderline disaster when Jokic isn’t on the floor.

When Jokic is on it, a 124.8 offensive rating is six points higher than the NBA leader and a 111.5 defensive rating would rank fifth. When Jokic is off the court, it’s a putrid 101.8 offensive rating, seven points lower than the league’s worst, and a 114.1 defensive rating would be 20th.

Denver surely would have been in only single digits for the first quarter had Phoenix not allowed a few cuts and offensive rebounds, but even then, Phoenix led by 12 through a dozen minutes. That grew to 20 at halftime before it expanded to 27 in the third quarter before the game got unnecessarily close.

After shooting 5-for-18 in his home debut, Kevin Durant looked much more like Kevin Durant in his second Footprint Center contest with purple and orange on. Durant made all four of his shot attempts in the first quarter for 12 points and ended up at 30 on 11-of-15 shooting with two blocks.

Durant said he came in and focused more on the defensive gameplan and just wanted to let his offensive game flow.

“Felt like I was a rookie last game,” he said. “I started off 0-for-4 and then after every shot I’m trying to get it back to 50% so I’m rushing shots, taking uncharacteristic looks and it leads to a night like that. So just being patient, letting the game come to me — that’s how I’ve always been playing.”

In terms of building up chemistry, Booker noted how there was a positive to come out of the bad second half.

“You can scout and scheme all you want but you need some experience and I think the benefit of tonight is we didn’t sit the fourth quarter,” he said. “It was still late game situations and we were put in those so I think that’s good moving forward for us.”

Booker wasn’t too shabby, either, with 27 points and six assists on 9-of-20 shooting.

Unfortunately for those of us that could potentially be hyper-analyzing a matchup between these two teams in a month’s time, there wasn’t much at all to take away from this game.

One of Denver’s biggest concerns will be how it individually guards Phoenix, and the best we got was ancillary pieces like Christian Braun, Bruce Brown and Vlatko Cancar tried out on the likes of Booker and Durant. That Denver trio is three of its better defenders and reserves it would mix in on ’em but it did not go well for them in terms of limiting the star duo. Aaron Gordon, the lone Nuggets starter to play, spent a good amount of time on Durant while Caldwell-Pope would take on the Booker assignment in a hypothetical series.

Schematically, Denver tried hard doubles, traps, switching and more to little or no avail. But again, it’s difficult to take any of that into consideration when 80% of the starting lineup is out.

Deandre Ayton had one of those nights where it was clear he was a bit disconnected from the flow of the game, shooting 4-of-11 and having a few bad plays in the fourth quarter that nearly got this one real hairy. As it turns out, he was not on the floor because of foul trouble across Denver’s big comeback, so he was a game-high +28.

Okogie was terrific for the second straight game. He’s developed a knack for grabbing a huge offensive rebound or turning on the defensive playmaking jets in clutch time. He had 14 points and five rebounds.

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