Denver Nuggets 117, Phoenix Suns 108: Three takeaways

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer

In the Denver Nuggets’ first game after the trade deadline, two familiar faces made the difference in their 117-108 victory against the Phoenix Suns. While Jamal Murray dropped bucket after bucket, Paul Millsap returned to provide a steady blend of offense and defense off the bench. The win secured a season sweep for Denver against Phoenix.

"When you can defend like we did tonight and your defense travels with the depth that we have, I think we're going to be a really tough team to beat," Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said. "There's a belief there and it (winning on the road) is something we know we have to do to be a great team and get a good seed for the playoffs."

Both teams scored early and often to begin the game. There were six 3-pointers knocked down between the two teams in the first five minutes as the game was tied at 17. Phoenix was able to use a 6-0 scoring run to take control midway through the first quarter, which resulted in a 37-28 lead after 12 minutes of play. The Suns used the 3-pointer to fuel a lot of their offense as they knocked down five threes in the quarter. Murray continued his impressive play with 15 points in the frame.

As Millsap made his return to the court on the second unit, the Nuggets used an 8-0 run in the opening minutes of the second quarter to stop Phoenix’s momentum. Unfortunately for the Nuggets, they weren’t able to take the lead before several starters returned for both teams and Phoenix rebuilt a nine-point lead late in the quarter. The Suns continued to attack the basket and finished with 28 points in the paint in the first half. The Nuggets recovered to close the first half on a 10-0 run, which gave them a 55-54 lead heading into the break.

Neither team could gain an edge to open the second half, but Denver was able to maintain a small lead midway through the third quarter. Phoenix used a brief 5-0 run to tie the game with just over three minutes remaining in the quarter, as Denver committed turnovers on consecutive possessions. From that point, Murray took over for the Nuggets as he knocked down three-straight 3-pointers and racked up 13 points in the quarter. Denver was able to grab an 83-78 lead heading into the final quarter.

Phoenix wouldn’t go quietly on its home floor, but through a mix of timely shots, key offensive rebounds and a few steals, the Nuggets were able to maintain their five-point lead with just under seven minutes remaining. Denver built the lead up to nine with four minutes remaining, which represented the largest lead of the night. Even though the lead didn’t get larger for the Nuggets until the final minute, they closed the game with a good mix of defensive stops and clutch shot-making to secure the road win.

Here are three takeaways from Denver’s win:

Murray continued scorching play

Since returning from his ankle injury, the Blue Arrow has been nothing short of sensational on the offensive end. Murray was locked in right from the get-go as he dropped 15 points in the first quarter alone, using a mix of 3-point shooting and drives to the basket to keep the defense on its heels.

"For him (Murray) to go 14-of-17 from the field and 6-of-8 from three, a lot of guys can score 36 but can they do it as efficiently as he did tonight?" Malone said. "That's a huge credit to him and a big, big night for him."

Ultimately, Murray finished with 36 points, five rebounds and five assists, continuing a strong run of play dating back to Tuesday’s win over the Portland Trail Blazers. The 22-year-old guard scored 51 points across Denver’s back-to-back wins over the Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz earlier this week, while he provided plenty of fuel for Denver’s offense on Saturday. As the Nuggets continue to get players back from injury, they are receiving consistent play from their leading guard at just the right time.

"We don't win that game without Jamal Murray," Malone added. "He was outstanding."

Some old and some new faces take the floor

Denver’s second-unit had a new look on Saturday night, as new addition Keita Bates-Diop joined forces with veteran Paul Millsap to provide rebounding and defensive versatility. While Bates-Diop was making his Nuggets debut, Millsap was returning to the court for the first time since Denver’s win over the Atlanta Hawks on Jan. 6th.

"A little towards the end I was a little tired," Millsap said with a chuckle following the win. "I felt pretty good. There was no doubt that as soon as I could play, I would."

Although his shot wasn’t falling, the veteran forward provided plenty of rebounding and playmaking to the Nuggets’ frontcourt. Millsap finished with 12 points, 11 rebounds and four assists on the night, while Bates-Diop accumulated four points and two rebounds in his debut. The 24-year-old forward also finished +6 on the night.

"Paul defensively has got great hands and instincts," Malone said. "You know he's going to rebound the ball and I'm really happy to have him back in the lineup."

Denver’s defense tightened up down the stretch

When the Suns dropped 37 points in the first quarter, it looked as if Malone would be in line for a tough viewing experience. However, Phoenix scored just 17 in the second quarter and 24 points in the third quarter as Denver gained control of the game. With Millsap back and a versatile forward in Bates-Diop added to the mix, the Nuggets had even more bodies and looks to throw at the Suns throughout the game.

"I thought our defense after the first quarter was outstanding," Malone said. "I thought the defense on Devin Booker was once again excellent, and after that first quarter our 3-point defense was terrific as well."

After Phoenix knocked down five 3-pointers in the first quarter alone, they made just four throughout the remaining 36 minutes of the game and finished 9-off-32 (28.1 percent) from beyond the arc.


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