The shorthanded Nuggets put forth a valiant effort but just fell short.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (Non-Covid Illness), Nikola Jokić (Right Calf Tightness), Jamal Murray (Left Knee Injury Management), and Michael Porter Jr. (Left Heel Injury Management) were all listed as questionable mid-afternoon on Friday. Then, just before game time, 80 percent of Denver’s starting rotation was further downgraded to out.
Plus, the Nuggets were on the second half of a back-to-back after hosting the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday.
As such, Denver’s starting lineup was unconventional: Reggie Jackson, Bruce Brown, Christian Braun, Aaron Gordon, and DeAndre Jordan. This was just Braun’s fourth start of the season, Jackson’s first start as a Nugget, and Jordan’s first bit of playing time since March 3. A big night for all involved.
The ragtag Nuggets did not go down without a fight, whittling down a 27-point Suns' advantage to just 4 points in the fourth quarter. Eventually, Denver lost its second-straight game, 100-93. Still, though, the scrappy Nuggets forced the Suns, a major contender in the Western Conference, into earning the victory.
“Immensely proud,” said Michael Malone. “You're down 27 points on the road. Second night of a back-to-back. Every reason in the world just to kind of roll over and play dead and get ready for Sunday at home, and guys just wouldn't do it. They competed. We got stops. Outscored them 53-40 in the second half, held them to 34 percent (shooting). Fourth quarter: 27 percent.”
Aaron Gordon, the only nominal starter for the Nuggets that played on Friday, led the show with 26 points on 10-of-23 shooting to go with 8 rebounds. He also held it down defensively with 2 steals and a block.
The Suns were unsurprisingly led by their stars, Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, who put up a combined 57 points. Phoenix is now 5-0 when Durant suits up, who the Suns acquired at the trade deadline.
Both teams got off to an even start, but Phoenix started to pull away when Durant quickly put up 11 points in 6 minutes. Then, when Durant checked out, his backup, T.J. Warren, gave the Suns instant offense with 4 points and 2 offensive rebounds. Denver finished the first quarter behind, 32-20.
Reggie Jackson pulled his squad within eight at the halfway point in the second after a floater and three-pointer. But Phoenix had answers: a layup and a three-pointer from Booker, and then a three-pointer from Josh Okogie after being left open and a transition dunk. This gave Phoenix a 20-point lead, their largest of the game. The Nuggets finished the half down 60-40 after shooting just 37 percent from the field.
The Nuggets found themselves in a 27-point hole to start the quarter. However, they had one last push in them. Denver went on a 19-3 run by tightening the screws defensively and turning Phoenix over six times in four minutes. Miraculously, this cut the deficit down to as few as 8 points. Denver entered the fourth quarter behind, 84-74.
Malone’s fourth-quarter crew—Ish Smith, Braun, Peyton Watson, Vlatko Cančar, and Zeke Nnaji—cut further into Phoenix’s lead to get the score to 86-81. A struggling Phoenix began the fourth quarter 4-of-18 from the field. Denver, meanwhile, made its shots at a solid 42.1 percent clip to get the deficit within four. Unfortunately, Booker shook free for a layup right down the middle of the painted area at the 1:55 mark in the quarter, and then Okogie hit his fourth three-pointer of the game for the dagger.
A comeback fueled by some serious defensive grit
As mentioned, the Nuggets made Phoenix sweat it out until the final buzzer. Denver did not have a good shooting night as a team. The Nuggets went just 40 percent from the field, 23.1 percent from three, and 55 percent from the line. Numbers that, just looking at them, don’t exactly go hand-in-hand with a rollicking comeback and wire-to-wire finish.
So, what’s the best way to make up for a subpar offense? A defense that’s as tough as chewing on nails. Duh. Denver turned Phoenix over 16 times in the game with 11 of those turnovers occurring in the second half. Forcing the Suns into mistakes, either through turnovers or just missed shots, gave the Nuggets the opportunity to get out in transition and score 22 fastbreak points.
“When we get stops, I think we had 17 fast break points in the second half,” said Malone, “Everybody, I mean, we just competed. We never let go of the rope. And to do that against that team, I believe they were averaging around 118 points a game in their last five, and we held them to 100 points in their building. There are no moral victories, but I can be proud of our team. And that's how I feel about our group right now.”
Plays like the one below in which Christian Braun switched onto Kevin Durant, sat on his fadeaway jump shot, and contested Durant’s shooting hand beautifully were key to spurring Denver’s second-half comeback.
Denver ripped away 11 steals against Phoenix, one of their ten-best performances of swindling this season. Not too shabby.
The Nuggets return to Ball Arena to host the Golden State Warriors at 6:30 p.m. MT.