Nuggets survive Suns comeback on night Nurkic drops 31, Durant climbs scoring list
Dec 2, 2023, 12:41 AM | Updated: 12:46 am
PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns received a 31-point night from center Jusuf Nurkic plus 30 points with 11 assists by Kevin Durant on Friday, but the Denver Nuggets held on late for a 119-111 victory at Footprint Center.
Both teams missed starters in their first regular season matchup since the playoffs last year, including Phoenix’s Devin Booker and Bradley Beal along with Denver’s Aaron Gordon and Jamal Murray.
Yet 11 players across both teams scored in double figures during what was a first-half shootout and a fourth quarter where neither team could pull away.
The Suns (11-8) erased a 17-point deficit to tie the game with a Grayson Allen 3-pointer early in the final period. For the next eight minutes of game time, the largest difference between the two sides was five points.
The death blow came with 45 seconds left.
The Suns fed Nurkic on the block on Nuggets (14-6) star center Nikola Jokic several times, and the Phoenix center found success against his former teammate in the paint. Their clash came to a head in the third quarter when the Suns fed Nurkic three times, the first resulting in a turnover with a lot of contact that displeased the crowd, and the next two were buckets that had Footprint Center as energetic as it had been all night in a throwback battle.
Nurkic banged into Jokic again in the final minute down 114-111, but the former’s elbow caught Jokic up high, resulting in a Flagrant 1.
The move was described by official Marc Davis as “unnatural.” It was also Nurkic’s sixth foul.
Jokic split the free throws and finished at the rim on the following possession to take a six-point lead and essentially ice the game. The two-time MVP finished with 21 points and 16 assists.
Durant said he was disappointed to waste a 30-point effort from his center.
Suns forward Kevin Durant says the team wasted a great performance from center Jusuf Nurkic in the 119-111 loss.
— Arizona Sports (@AZSports) December 2, 2023
Meanwhile in the second half, Durant was not getting his shots to fall. He dropped 22 points in the opening 30 minutes, climbing to No. 10 on the all-time scoring list and passing Moses Malone in the second quarter. But Durant closed the game with an 0-for-10 second half, something he’s never done during the regular season.
Durant felt he got to his spots, while head coach Frank Vogel had some thoughts on a lack of whistles. Durant made all 13 free throws he took, but his head coach felt he should have taken upwards of 20-22.
“He had a lot of ins and outs, he had some good looks, we could do a better job of getting him some cleaner ones, but he also was getting fouled,” Vogel said. “Those guys are doing a good job, but fourth quarter … the whistle stopped blowing.”
Nurkic also had some words for the officiating, questioning the lack of calls for Durant and expressing his belief that getting two stars back will help with the whistles.
Despite the starters in street clothes, both teams were firing early, combining for 29 points over the first three minutes and 30 seconds. Phoenix made its first eight shots. But Denver sustained that high-level offensive production throughout the opening half to take its sizable lead in the second quarter. Vogel called it one of the worst halves defensively the Suns have played this season.
“We made a lot of mistakes on defense, coverages, did not execute what the coaching staff wanted for us, especially as a big,” Nurkic said. “Our pick-and-roll coverage definitely should be better in the first half. At the end of the second quarter, we kind of figured it out and got some stops and got on the run.”
The Suns went on a 12-3 run to close out the half with Durant scoring six points in the final 51 seconds. That’s when he got a mismatch with Denver point guard Reggie Jackson and took him down low for the layup to crack the top 10.
Suns forward Kevin Durant passes Moses Malone for No. 10 on the all time scoring list in the first half vs. Denver.
— Arizona Sports (@AZSports) December 2, 2023
Vogel said he was pleased with the fight his team showed in the second half, and while their base defense faltered early, their adjustments appeared to work. Denver got great looks at the rim in the first half, but their offense found much more resistance.
“Our base defense wasn’t good in the first half. So we had to get creative and more aggressive which in a lot of situations can make you vulnerable to 3s and and stuff on the backside,” Vogel said. “It energized us, we got our guys activated and we did a much better job in the second half.”
The Suns also received some big minutes from role players Josh Okogie and Allen.
Okogie scored 13 points off the bench with a pair of blocks and offensive rebounds, and his energy elevated the Suns on their runs to chase down Denver. Allen missed the previous two games due to illness but played 37 minutes on Friday, scoring 13 points on nine shots with nine rebounds.
Allen was inserted back into the starting lineup alongside Durant, Nurkic, Eric Gordon and Keita Bates-Diop with Booker ruled out due to a sprained right ankle he sustained in Wednesday’s loss to the Toronto Raptors.
The Suns have another game Saturday night in Phoenix against the Memphis Grizzlies at 7 p.m.
Durant reaches another milestone
Durant said he was well aware he passed Malone late in the second quarter. He’d been hearing about it all day. The Suns announced his accomplishment to the arena at the half.
“It is a long journey to be up there and mentioned with the greats,” Durant said. “Takes a lot of work and preparation and a lot of people to help me get to that point. Grateful, thinking about all the people who helped me get to this point; all teammates, coaches, family, friends that have invested in me since I was a kid. … It is amazing to be amongst the greats.”
When will Devin Booker play?
Booker has received treatment on his ankle approximately every 12 hours since the injury, Vogel explained pregame.
“With a situation like that, sometimes you can toughen it out and finish the game,” Vogel said. “But it’s going to swell up later that night and afterward it did.”
Vogel said the staff will see how Booker feels on Saturday before determining his status but added if Booker can go, he will.
The Suns have played 11 games with two of the Big 3 and eight games with only one.