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SIX NUGGETS FINISH IN DOUBLE-FIGURES IN NARROW LOSS TO SUNS

Matt Brooks
Writer & Digital Content Specialist

Once again, the shorthanded Denver Nuggets gave everything they had and pushed the Phoenix Suns to the brink. 

Denver (52-28) lost to the Phoenix Suns (45-35) on Thursday night, 119-115. The loss brought the season series to a tie at 2-2. Though in each of the last two meetups, the Nuggets were missing most, if not all, of their starters.

That’s what happened on Thursday when Denver elected to sit its entire starting lineup—Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, and Nikola Jokić—with the #1 seed in the Western Conference secured. Phoenix is also locked into its seeding at spot number four in the West, though they’re still looking to build continuity after trading for Kevin Durant in February. Thus, the Suns played all of their guys en route to a seventh-straight victory. 

Michael Malone got a balanced and efficient night from the nine players that saw the floor. Of those nine players, six of them reached double-figures in scoring. As a team, the Nuggets shot 53 percent from the field, 34.8 percent from three-point range, and 82.6 percent from the line. They also outscored the Suns, 66-32, in points in the paint and won 15-5 in fastbreak scoring.  

Bruce Brown led all scorers with 31 points, which represented a career-high for the 26-year-old. He also grabbed 6 rebounds and dished out 4 assists. 

Phoenix was also quite efficient on offense. They made 51.7 percent of their shots, went a blistering 47.2 percent from deep on their home floor, and made 80 percent of their free throws. 

Chris Paul played a massive role in Phoenix’s ridiculous night from distance, knocking down a career-high 7 three-pointers for 25 points. Durant also pitched in 6 made threes and had a team-high 29 points on his usual efficient shooting line, this time going 9-of-18 from the field. 

The Suns got off to a hot start on a 14-5 run behind some excellent shot-making from Durant. The Nuggets were able to battle back thanks to production from two veterans: Jeff Green drew two free throws and hit a left wing three, and Ish Smith zig-zagged his way into 4 points on 2-of-3 shooting. Phoenix finished the first quarter ahead, 27-25. 

Green hit a second three-pointer, this time from the right wing, at the 9:48 mark in the second quarter to reach 8 points, the high for either team’s bench. The Suns couldn’t control the basketball, turning it over four times in the first 4 minutes. Bruce Brown went on a nice tear for the Nuggets, scoring or assisting on 8 of Denver’s 9 points in the middle of the quarter. Paul kept the Suns in the game with 3 made three-pointers, but the Nuggets finished the half ahead, 56-55. 

CP3 carried over his impressive rhythm from the first half into the third quarter, knocking down his fourth and fifth three-pointers early. The Nuggets, meanwhile, screeched out to 11 fastbreak points in the first 6 minutes, as Bruce Brown led all third-quarter scorers with 10 points. Christian Braun also pitched in with a steal and fastbreak layup, and then he hit a side-step three-pointer to give Denver its largest lead of the game, up 80-74. Though Devin Booker couldn’t find any sort of rhythm with his shot, finishing the third just 2-for-11 from the field, he did dish out 6 assists to send the Suns into the fourth quarter ahead 89-86. 

The Nuggets began the fourth quarter on a 13-5 run after Jeff Green hit up a pull-up three off multiple dribbles and Zeke Nnaji hit one while spotting up at the left wing. Durant steadied his group with 12 points on two three-pointers and two trips to the free-throw line. The Suns began to pull away at the 3-minute mark in the fourth quarter after Chris Paul hit his sixth three-pointer to put Phoenix up 114-107. A possession later, Paul hit one of his patented midrange jumpers and then followed that up with his seventh three of the game. That pretty much sealed the deal for the Suns.

What can Brown/Braun do for you? 

Bruce Brown was the star of the show for the Nuggets thanks to his career-high 31 points. He did so on a variety of finishes near the rim.

Just look at his shot chart: every attempt is either in or near the restricted circle! Brown, a 72 percent shooter within 4 feet of the basket, is a player who knows exactly what he’s good at and plays that role to a T. 

Brown’s floater was stuck on automatic on Thursday. He even made one with his off-hand! Maybe his prettiest play of the night was a reverse layup where he somehow placed the ball in between the wickets of multiple shot-blocking arms. 

Braun, meanwhile, continues to look playoff ready. He had 15 points on the night, all of which came at the rim or behind the three-point arc. He bullied past Devin Booker for his first points of the night. Later, he connected on a catch-and-shoot three-pointer in the corner. ‘CB’ was feeling it so much he even hit a side-step three in Booker's face. And much like Brown, he too had a highlight at-rim finish: a gorgeous up-and-under layup after intercepting Booker’s pass to Chris Paul in the corner. 

Speaking of Booker, the Brown/Braun combination made his life tough on Thursday. Booker finished with just 15 points on 3-of-12 shooting, and each of Denver’s hardnosed defenders harassed him in different ways. Brown utilized his incredible ability to slither around screens and get back in front of his matchups on pick-and-rolls, beating Booker to his spots all night. Braun, on the other hand, used his athleticism to leap into the air and extinguish Booker's airspace on jump shots. 

The Braun/Brown combination adds a new layer of defensive grit to Denver's bench. Collectively, they make the Nuggets more matchup-proof in the playoffs. 

A fun night from the veterans 

Thursday was an enjoyable night for Nuggets fans in every way, shape, or form. Even Denver’s veterans provided ample highlights on the road. 

The Nuggets might have two of the most entertaining reserve point guards out there: Reggie Jackson and Ish Smith are both constant sources of highlights and lived up to that billing in Phoenix. 

Reggie carved up the Suns' defense all night. He’s got every single dribbling move you could need to lead the dance. Hard crossovers into pull-up three-pointers, one of which nearly dropped Cam Payne to the floor. Between the legs dribbles. Jackson’s excellent at selling jab steps, leading to a silky step-back 20-footer late in the fourth quarter. In the pick-and-roll, he used the ‘snake dribble’ to dribble down the left lane line only to cross back middle and get to his free-throw line jumper at the 1:29 mark in the fourth. 

Jackson had 6 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter. There’s a real opportunity at backup ball-handler when Jamal Murray sits in the playoffs, and Jackson's been a consistent performer in that setting, averaging 12.9 points on 46.9 percent from the field, 39.2 percent from three-point range, and 88.8 percent from the free-throw line in his postseason career.  

Smith was equally entertaining, though he went about his business in different ways. Ish has long been one of the quicker players in the league and is excellent at mixing up speeds to send defenders stumbling. He’s incredibly adept at pulling up for midrange shots on a dime, and maybe his best play of the night came at the end of the third quarter. Ish hit a behind-the-back dribble at the elbow and faked like he was going to take the midrange shot, only to take one last dribble into the layup for 2 of his 11 points. Just nasty.

Jackson and Smith did a great job facilitating, as well, tossing out 12 dimes collectively. DeAndre Jordan was the main beneficiary and finished with 12 points on a perfect 6-of-6 shooting line to go with 11 rebounds. The alley-oop was one of Denver's go-to plays on Thursday, and DJ slammed down multiple lobs with vigor.

We can’t leave out mention of Jeff Green, who finished with 14 points on the night. Most encouraging was his shooting from distance. He knocked down 3-of-6 three-pointers, including one out of a pick-and-pop with Ish Smith. Green also had a filthy pull-up three. 

Really, you couldn’t have asked for a better night from the shorthanded Nuggets, especially with the way the veterans played. And with the playoffs on the precipice, giving Green, Jackson, Smith, and Jordan ample opportunity to find rhythm could pay major dividends if they’re called upon in the postseason crucible. 

The Nuggets head to Salt Lake City to play the Utah Jazz on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. MT.