EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns get efficient in clutch time, beat resting Nuggets

Apr 6, 2023, 11:05 PM

PHOENIX — Nothing will change for the Denver Nuggets or Phoenix Suns after Thursday’s 119-115 Suns win, and you could tell by the way the game unfolded on the court.

With three games in four days left for each squad, Denver locked in the No. 1 overall seed in the Western Conference on Wednesday while Phoenix’s victory on Tuesday sealed its fate as the fourth seed.

Denver on Thursday was without all five of its starters. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (non-COVID illness), Aaron Gordon (right shoulder inflammation), Nikola Jokic (right calf tightness), Jamal Murray (right thumb sprain) and Michael Porter Jr. (left heel injury management) were all out.

Phoenix had everyone in outside of T.J. Warren, who was a late scratch because of an illness.

The Suns have a reason to go all out when it comes to personnel because this was just their eighth game with Durant. The problem is they’ve got to be playing with some level of intensity to get something out of it, and I have been to summer league games with more juice in the early-going.

Phoenix led by two through one quarter before trailing by three with 4:31 left in the first half. The Suns ended the half up one but allowed 36 points in the paint.

There was no response out of halftime. Phoenix’s flow was all off, resulting in some poor turnovers and no making up of ground. It was up three with a quarter to go but was quickly trailing later in the frame.

At under six minutes remaining and still down one, the Suns went back to what worked in Sunday’s win to find a spark to take the victory. They spammed double drag, a play with two screens set at the top that makes the defense choose between leaving one of Deandre Ayton, Devin Booker, Kevin Durant or Chris Paul with space.

On Thursday, the first resulted in an isolation touch for Booker off a mismatch created by a switch he turned into a floater. The second and third followed the same pattern of Sunday. Ayton’s roll and Paul’s pressure coming around the screen left Durant open in the weak-side corner for a 3. The next possession, Durant’s gravity had his defender indecisive, so Ayton was open under the basket to draw two free throws.

“Then it just comes down to me making the right read,” Paul said of it. “It’s a good problem to have. DA on the rim, Book up top, me middy — we got so many different options. I think it’s just gonna change from night to night.”

Afterward, Phoenix led by four with 3:40 to go and that was about all the Nuggets had left in them. Paul hit two more 3-pointers to ice it, giving him a career-high seven on the night.

“In the meat of the game, it was just too many ‘my bad’ situations. … I do understand competitive edge of high-level players,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “When you see that many guys out, human nature, whatever you want to call it, sometimes you drop your guard, you drop your edge a little bit. … I get that part but as we’re trying to build some synergy and rhythm you just want to see more consistency like we did in OKC down the stretch and then the fourth quarter.”

Durant’s 29 points, seven rebounds and four assists were a productive effort to keep this game within a possession before the Suns were engaged enough in crunch time to end it. Booker was trying to do the same but it just wasn’t his night. He shot 3-for-12 with 15 points and eight assists. The three field goals are a season low for him, outside of the Christmas Day game when he exited four minutes in and did not return.

Paul ended up at 25 points, his second straight 20-plus-point outing. Durant’s arrival certainly put Paul in a position to be off the ball even more than the planned uptick heading into the season and he’s starting to adjust pretty darn well.

The Suns have now won seven straight games and are 8-0 with Durant.

Denver’s Bruce Brown had a game-high 31 points, plus six rebounds and four assists.

Durant played 41 minutes, the type of total it seems like both Williams Durant wanted him to get to for at least one regular season game ahead of the playoffs. Williams would not say if Durant or other key players will be in the lineup for Friday’s second game of a back-to-back in Los Angeles against the Lakers.

What matters in the grand scheme of things is everyone came off the court healthy, not the missed opportunity to build a little more cohesion.

It’s hard to imagine the Suns playing anyone important the rest of the season. If this is how those players respond to the opportunity, there’s no point in them getting on the court beyond keeping conditioning intact. Phoenix will not play for a week after Sunday anyway, so the question of rhythm and all that is irrelevant. The Suns will likely have a scrimmage or two in the middle of next week to get that in a good place and maintain conditioning.

The good news is if Phoenix wants to play its guys, it will get a more competitive environment. Friday is a gigantic game for the Lakers to avoid the play-in while the Clippers on Sunday in Phoenix could possibly still be a situation where they need to win to clinch a playoff spot.

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