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Booker and Bledsoe combine for 52, Suns still lose to Nuggets

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Even with a good opportunity at halftime, the Suns failed to make up ground in the playoff chase.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Denver Nuggets Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

First Quarter

If shootouts are your thing, this game started off rather incredibly. Neither team seemed all that interesting in keeping the other out of the paint, and so a defensive rebound meant the ball immediately moving the other direction and into the paint for either a layup attempt or a dish outward.

Fortunately, the Suns’ starting guards got hot early, combining for 15 of the Suns’ 29 first quarter points. Unfortunately, that concept I mentioned up above of the Suns grabbing a rebound became a tall (or not tall enough, maybe) task for Phoenix against an aggressive Nuggets frontcourt. They out-rebounded the Suns by a whopping ten boards in the opening frame.

All things considered, it was just a matter of who made the most of their opportunities. The Suns can keep up with teams that decide to simply match their pace; that’s what they did to start.

Second Quarter

For a moment, it looked like this might be The Brandon Knight Game, Part Two. After scoring a season-high 32 on Denver earlier in the season, Knight took a page out of the Nuggets’ book and scooted past anyone who tried to defend him in the second. When he plays in control and has space to work, explosions like these are exciting.

The Suns shot a whopping 60 percent in the second, compared to the Nuggets’ sub-50 percent mark. They kept Gallinari quiet and aside from some nice Will Barton moments, this was the Suns’ best frame.

A reappearance by Jared Dudley had an immediate impact on the team’s defense; whether switching through big man assignments with P.J. Tucker or scrapping the way we’ve always known him to do, Dudley changed the game in the second.

Third Quarter

I would feel silly not mentioning T.J. Warren somewhere— this was the best the young wing has looked since his return from injury. Even when he was on the court with Bledsoe or Knight, Warren was given opportunities to handle the ball and initiate the offense.

He rewarded the staff’s faith in him with a near-double double: 21 points and 8 rebounds. He also played 42 minutes with Bender out and Chriss struggling. Let’s hope this is a sign of things to come (less minutes though, please) for Warren, who could use a healthy second half to get back on track after a great November.

In other news, the Nuggets continued to share the ball, attack early in the shot clock, and find good shots. Five players scored at least five points in the third quarter; the Nuggets scored 39 overall. Way to tank your defensive numbers, Suns.

Fourth Quarter

I find value in searching for positives each time the coaching staff makes a change this season, rather than complaining about the obvious concerns. Dudley replacing Bender tonight worked well, and put the Suns in a position to win with his defense. Similarly, there were some wrinkles with Warren in the offense. All good.

Finally, though it may not be the most efficient style, the Suns have found a recipe that works for late-game situations on offense. They even look like they have a plan sometimes! Devin Booker and Eric Bledsoe trade possessions in isolation and pick-and-roll situations, trying their best to get to the line or else find an efficient shot for a teammate. Sometimes, that means Tyson Chandler around the rim; other times, a three-pointer when someone’s defender has been sucked inward.

It was not enough tonight, though the blame for that should fall more on the Suns’ bigs’ inability to rebound the ball in crunch time than anything else. I found myself wishing that Chriss was able to play bigger - and more often - to offset nights like this when things get tumultuous. Nikola Jokic scored 11 points and grabbed 5 rebounds in the final frame to put it away. Chriss wasn’t even in there to try and stop him, and played only eight minutes all night.

Alas, I wasn’t expecting much; playing in Denver puts every team at a disadvantage, and the Nuggets are just finding their stride. They’ll get another chance at home on Saturday night.