Suns respond to season’s low point with thorough win over Nuggets

Mar 27, 2024, 10:10 PM | Updated: 10:12 pm

Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets is guarded by Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns during th...

Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets is guarded by Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns during the first quarter at Ball Arena on March 27, 2024 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

The guessing game of which Phoenix Suns team shows up on which night persists. The best current version did on Wednesday in a 104-97 win over the Denver Nuggets.

Phoenix was clearly motivated by an embarrassing loss on Monday to a shorthanded San Antonio Spurs squad. That only inspires a follow-up of why it wasn’t a few weeks ago when a potential play-in tournament fate began looming. Regardless, the Suns’ result was what they will hope is the beginning of using an arduous 10-game close of the season to their advantage before the postseason.

The victory came without Jusuf Nurkic (right ankle sprain). On/off numbers have favored Nurkic as the most valuable player for the Suns outside the Big 3, and given how well he steps up his game in the spirited matchup with former teammate Nikola Jokic, his absence could have been magnified even further.

Denver, however, didn’t have Jamal Murray (right knee inflammation) and both it and Jokic strangely didn’t get up for this game after it lost to the Suns on March 5, which had the same lack of energy it had in that defeat. Either way it’s one of the Suns’ best wins of the year and has a case as the best if it proves to be a building block.

Phoenix’s overall play was a prime example of what it has to set as the minimum standard for the rest of the season. The Suns’ energy on both ends and intent to execute was evident. Ball-handlers were operating with pace in the half-court, attacking Denver’s defense multiple times a possession. This predictably helped Phoenix generate more good looks from deep. Defensively, they actually executed the rotations off double-teams on a handful of possessions.

There were also mistakes. Eubanks stared at a rebound his man chased. Eric Gordon wildly closed out on a shooter to let him side-step into an easy 3. The capped ceiling of the defense was on display. The turnovers on the other end were there. All of those things aren’t going away. That is part of the Suns’ identity at this point.

But if they play hard through it and stick with what they should be doing from the philosophical perspective, the good results will come. The problem of course is this is something you’d typically be talking about in December and we’re in late March. But hey, worth a shout.

Off that, Kevin Durant was leading by example as a two-way monster. He was flying around on defense and was right alongside Bradley Beal in attacking off the bounce at every opportunity. He’s had a great season by all accounts but this is the Durant the Suns need the rest of the way to have any type of chance at a run in the postseason. Durant finished with 30 points, 13 rebounds, three assists, five blocks and eight turnovers.

The Suns once again benefitted from a lack of aggression out of Jokic, who had the same malaise he did from the matchup earlier this month. When he puts pressure on a defense by pursuing paint touches and forcing those double-teams to come over early, it will always lead to a good look. Instead, he was making those passes a few seconds earlier and letting Phoenix’s defense off the hook. This was a big-time break for Phoenix, especially without Nurkic playing.

He arose in the back-half of the third quarter, predictably leading to a 12-0 Nuggets run that got them within three after Phoenix got ahead by as many as 15.

But then Jokic got passive once again. On one possession, he triggered a ball rotation that led to Collin Gillespie getting the ball on the right wing. Jokic established position 12 feet out and immediately got the ball, but Gillespie’s defender was slightly helping off already, so Jokic just tossed it back to his open teammate who missed. It’s a good basketball play in theory. Jokic, however, can do better. Phoenix’s immediate response was an 8-0 spurt to go back up 11.

Phoenix was up 10 entering the fourth quarter. Jokic played the whole third, meaning the opening few minutes of the final frame granted it an opportunity to remain level without Jokic or Murray on the floor, finding confidence at the time when everything usually begins spiraling.

It was only a three-minute segment but the Suns did the job. From there, the only opening Denver has was when Phoenix missed a pair of three-pointers to let the lead slip to eight but there was no extra burst to come.

It was not a good shooting night for Devin Booker, a 5-for-17 mark, but he put forth the type of defensive effort that was expected out of him every night coming into the year after how he shined there last postseason and also dished out nine assists to two turnovers.

Phoenix was from 3 and 16-for-33 (48.5%). That most encouragingly came with none of the seven Suns to make one knocking down more than three. It also helped cover the 17 turnovers.

Denver shot 10-of-40 (25%) on triples off all that extra attention going toward Jokic that he was content with passing out of to set up shots for his teammates. As we’ve grown accustomed to, a blah Jokic game was 22 points, nine rebounds, 10 assists, two steals, a block and one turnover. The best player in the world is probably going to win his third MVP and it is deserved.

Beal played through his sprained right ring finger. He continues to be a positive for his rim pressure alone, which helped get those 3s going. It was 10 points (3-for-11), four rebounds, seven assists, a steal, a block and four turnovers for him.

Without Nurkic, Thaddeus Young got the backup 5 minutes and played great. The fanbase has been adamant about giving him those minutes over Eubanks and the reasoning was on display. Young made several decisive, good passes off the extra attention toward the stars while finding a way to impact the game in a few other spots. He ended up with six points, nine rebounds, two assists and a steal in 18 minutes, a strong case to retain the rotation spot.

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