What: Phoenix Suns (9-27, 15th in Western Conference) vs. Denver Nuggets (22-11, first in Western Conference)
When: Saturday, 7:00 PM AZ time
Watch: Fox Sports Arizona PLUS
Listen: 98.7 FM
On Friday night, the 9-27 Suns returned home from an east cost “get-well” roadie and were reminded of just how tough the Western Conference is.
Playing a series of beatable teams with a healthy roster for the first time all season, the Suns had won five of seven overall, including three of five on the road, to give them new life on a dismal season in the win column.
“We’re not planning to stop any time soon,” Deandre Ayton said of winning games to Hoopeshype.com writer Alex Kennedy in Orlando.
There was a palpable buzz in the arena before and during the game. Sure, many were there to see the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook, one of the most attractive NBA stars on the road because of his dozen dazzling highlight plays each night.
But many were excited to see this new-look Phoenix Suns too. It’s literally been four years since the Suns won a five-game+ road trip or when they won four straight games anywhere.
Let me say that again: It’s been about 320 games since Suns fans got to enjoy so many wins in such a short span of time. So you can forgive giddy Suns fans for hoping the corner had been turned toward an upward winning trajectory.
And it’s been an NBA lifetime for Devin Booker and most of his teammates. Grandaddy of tenure, T.J. Warren, was a bench-stapled rookie when last the Suns were winning on the regular (October-December 2014), and not one other player on this current roster has tasted such success in a Suns uni. So you can forgive the players, too, for hoping they’d turned a corner.
But then Friday night was a swift reminder that winning isn’t easy in the Western Conference of the NBA.
The Thunder boast the league’s top-ranked defense, fueled by active hands in the passing lanes and a Dothraki at center. They punched the Suns over and over from the opening tip, trying to impose their intimidating will on the young Suns and put the game away early. Clearly, the Thunder knew this Suns team would not roll over easy.
“Their team is totally different from than the one we faced the three previous times,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said before the game started.
The Suns responded for three full quarters, taking the Thunder punches and jabbing back. The home team even had the lead much of the game, taking an 84-81 lead into the fourth. Devin Booker was threatening a triple-double (16/10/6 after three) and was playing spirited defense (three steals). Deandre Ayton was playing his best defensive game at the rim, and the octopus wing defense was frustrating Russ just enough to keep the game in hand.
But then the Suns winced under the pressure.
First the bench unit. Then the starters.
“They made a run we didn’t respond to,” Booker said of the Thunder’s 21-4 run to start the fourth quarter.
Dennis Schroder, a 42% shooter overall and 32% on threes, made four straight jumpers including a pair of threes to start the fourth and put the Thunder in the lead.
Devin Booker came back in to steady the team, but picked up his 4th and 5th fouls in rapid succession and could not be aggressive on defense anymore.
Then Westbrook did the rest.
#Suns rookie PG De’Anthony Melton said Russell Westbrook “is like a volcano” because of his ability to erupt offensively even after cold-shooting stretches.— Gina Mizell (@ginamizell) December 29, 2018
In the end, the Suns lost big once again. The 27th time this season against only nine wins.
Today, we only know it was another 16-point loss fueled by Suns ineptitude.
It’s up to the Suns themselves to make that ineptitude an aberration by playing strong these next few games.
Unfortunately, their next four games are against the West-leading Nuggets and the two-time defending NBA champion Warriors to close out 2018, and then the surging 76ers and Clippers to kick off the New Year.
“It’s the NBA,” Booker said. “We just got to focus forward.”
The Suns play Denver tonight at 7:00 PM.
The Nuggets aren’t even healthy. Will Barton and Paul Millsap have been out for long stretches, while Harris (hip) has been day to day. No word whether he will play against the Suns, but if I’m the Nuggets I rest him one more game because it’s unlikely you’d need him against the West’s worst team.
But the Nuggets still lead the entire Western Conference with a 22-11 record, propelled by mercurial center Nikola Jokic and elite-level guards in Jamal Murray and Gary Harris.
The Suns will have a difficult time containing the Nuggets 8th-ranked offense and 7th-ranked defense, marks not even reached by the young Suns during their recent winning stretch (11th and 12th, respectively, the last 8 games).
Jokic was perfect against Ayton earlier this year, with 35 points on 11/11 shooting, 11 rebounds, 11 assists and 4 steals in just 30 minutes of play on opening weekend. For the season, likely All-Star Jokic puts up about 18/10/7 each night from the pivot.
The Suns can only hope that Ayton has developed enough on the defensive end to make it hard for Jokic to play as well, and that the Suns new octopus-level wing defense can contain the smaller Harris and Murray.
Tune in tonight, or head down to the arena!