DENVER, CO - JANUARY 3: Gary Harris #14 of the Denver Nuggets drives to the basket against the Phoenix Suns on January 3, 2018 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado.
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Gary Harris, Defense Lead Nuggets to Victory Over Phoenix

The Nuggets have made a habit of leaning on defense – heavily – in the last 12 games. This is where they ranked in some defensive categories coming into Wednesday night’s game against the Phoenix Suns.

- Defensive rating: 103.9 (9th)

- Defensive rebound percentage: 80.2 (5th)

- Opponent 2nd chance points: 9.1 (1st)

- Opponent fast break points: 9.6 (4th)

- Opponent 3-point percentage: 33 (5th)

- Opponent points: 102.1 (5th)

In a 134-111 win over Phoenix at the Pepsi Center, the Nuggets again relied on sticky defense to see them through.

“I asked our players, ‘What’s our goal?’” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “If we want to be a playoff team, this is a game we have to have.”

They got it. But they had to get on track to do it, following up a solid first quarter with a not-so-solid second. But, down 67-61 going into the third, the Nuggets clamped down on the Suns, big-time. In that quarter…

They forced Phoenix into missing 14 of its first 15 shots.

They held the Suns to 5-of-28 (17.9 percent) shooting from the field.

They held the Suns to 18 points total.

Malone said the third, “might have been our best quarter of defense this season.”

At the end of it all the Nuggets had a 13-point lead. With the Nuggets tied together so well on defense, the fourth quarter became a formality. They outscored the Suns again – 36-26 – and won the game going away.

The offensive load was assumed early by Gary Harris, who scored and scored until the points piled 36 high. That tied a career high for the Nuggets starting shooting guard, and he barely missed on the way to the total. Harris made 14-of-17 shots overall, getting going with a play that has been largely taken away from him this season – the backdoor cut.

He grabbed a couple of passes on those plays, turned them into easy layups and was off and running. Harris scored 20 points on 9-of-10 shooting in the first quarter alone.

“The start he got off on was incredible,” Malone said.

Said Will Barton: “Gary had it going tonight. He was aggressive from the jump. … Once a guy gets going, you look for him.”

Harris led six Nuggets in double figures. Wilson Chandler had 17 points, Trey Lyles finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds, and Nikola Jokić had a near triple-double with 14 points, nine rebounds and eight assists.

The Nuggets, as a team, had their second-highest shooting percentage of the season, making 62.2 percent from the field.

“It was a team win,” Malone said. “And I’m proud of our guys.”

Christopher Dempsey: and @chrisadempsey on Twitter