The exact opposite for the Phoenix Suns ended up happening compared to Wednesday’s season opener. Instead of keeping it close against the Nuggets, Denver cruised to victory led by Nikola Jokic’s dominant performance where he had 35 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists on 11-11 field goal attempts. Whether it was Deandre Ayton or Tyson Chandler, neither had a chance against Jokic.
There were some bright spots in the 119-91 loss, even though the competitiveness in this game went away early in the second half once there was no answer found to stop Jokic from controlling everything. However, as you should expect, plenty of negatives popped up all over the place.
So we don’t forget about him, Devin Booker posted 25 points on only 15 shots, including 17 free throw attempts. That amount of trips to the line hasn’t occurred for Booker since his 70-point explosion against Boston during the 2016-17 season. Even though Denver wasn’t opening up any room for Booker from the perimeter, he took full advantage of what was presented.
Booker looks the part of an offensive star who will hit another level within Igor Kokoskov’s system, but I wanted to focus on two wings who really impressed me today. For Booker, strong nights are becoming routine for him already.
Continuing with my recap format from last season, here are my takeaways with ‘Thumbs Up’ and ‘Thumbs Down’ used as the grading scale.
Thumbs Down: Team defense, especially in transition
During the Nuggets’ shellacking of Phoenix, final results showed their offense was doing whatever they wanted tonight. They shot 50.6% from the field, and most of their damage occurred on fast breaks. At halftime, Denver had a 22-2 lead in that category.
Phoenix’s offense covered up holes on defense that leaked out versus Dallas, but their offense was clicking on all cylinders so it wasn’t as big of a deal. Well, as we saw tonight, against good teams in the Western Conference it won’t be enough.
The next two matchups will be versus Golden State and the Lakers. Two teams who love to play at an even faster pace, so it could be rough sledding ahead if they don’t fix these issues immediately (hard to expect, honestly, because it takes time to implement these philosophies).
Thumbs Up: Mikal Bridges earns spot in rotation following strong debut
Welcome to the NBA, Bridges.
He looked just like he did in Las Vegas Summer League, playing within himself and making the correct reads. On top of that, he forced multiple turnovers and drained three-pointers on consecutive possessions.
Also, Bridges had a beautiful assist to a cutting Booker — the one area where the Villanova product was lacking during his college career. If he can take steps forward playmaking under Kokoskov, he’s going to be a multi-tool weapon they could deploy off the bench.
Bridges did all of this in only 15 minutes while holding the best plus-minus at +21. The next highest Sun was Ayton at +3.
Moving forward, Bridges needs to see minutes in Kokoskov’s rotation. Whether it’s already shifting Jamal Crawford into a smaller role or reducing minutes for one of Ryan Anderson or Trevor Ariza, something needs to go down.
I’m looking forward to seeing Bridges and Booker share the floor together, with Ayton’s gravity allowing both to have plenty of space for open shots.
Thumbs Down: Tyson Chandler and Jamal Crawford struggled mightily
Crawford only played 7 minutes, and in his first 4 he tried to feed Tyson Chandler in the post five times. If that’s Ayton, it works but that shouldn’t be happening at all for Chandler. Crawford had a few moments defensively pickpocketing a few steals but he needs to time to gel within this roster so I won’t harp on his performance much.
Chandler through two games looks even slower than last season and even less lift. There were a few possessions where Jokic beat him down the court by a wide margin for easy looks at the rim. If this is how Chandler is going to play, I don’t think he’s going to contribute much consistency outside of vocal veteran leadership.
With that being said, will we see more Richaun Holmes moving forward?
By the way, Trevor Ariza finished with a plus-minus of -47. That comes after Ariza led the Suns at +25 on Wednesday. He also had his rough patches during Saturday’s blowout loss.
Thumbs Up: T.J. Warren’s shot improvements are legit
For the first time in Warren’s career, he has made multiple three-pointers in back-to-back games. Entering his fifth season, that’s an incredible stat. It also speaks to how much Warren is embracing shooting from deep under Kokoskov, who said previously he wants his team to shoot over 30 of them and take them when they are open. Well, Warren is definitely doing that through two games.
Warren is 5-9 (55.6%) from behind the arc. Wow. If he can keep that percentage hovering around 35%, that does so much for his offensive profile.
Tony Buckets finished with 16 points on 7-12 field goal attempts in 22 minutes while having impressive sequences on defense, too.
It’s a two-game sample size, but Warren is averaging 16.5 points while attempting 4.5 three-pointers in 23 minutes. Awesome to see this growth out of Warren.
Thumbs Down: Pedestrian assist-to-turnover ratio
An area Kokoskov has harped on before is keeping their assist-to-turnover ratio at respectable levels in order to keep games competitive. After posting 35 assists in their season opener, the Suns had only 20 assists compared to 19 turnovers.
If the AST/TO is that low, odds are it will be a loss, usually in blowout fashion like we saw tonight.
Booker led the team with 7 turnovers (also 7 assists), but Denver was trapping him often making things difficult when he was placed into the primary ball handler role.
Even though Isaiah Canaan is exceeding expectations, this could continue to be a problem against playoff-caliber teams without a starting-caliber point guard.
Game 1 saw a blowout victory at home, but Game 2 brought an embarrassing loss on the road. Let’s see how they fare against the defending champion Warriors on Monday at Oracle Arena.