When: Saturday, January 12, at 7:00 PM
Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix
Watch: Fox Sports Arizona PLUS (Note the ‘plus’ — different channel than usual)
Listen: 98.7 FM
Here we go again.
Tonight, the Phoenix Suns are lucky enough to play their third game of the season against one of the best teams in the Western Conference and, frankly, a team that the Suns are just not built to beat.
The Suns hosted the Nuggets two weeks ago and while the game ended in only a 4-point loss (122-118) after a spirited Suns comeback, the Nuggets had doubled up the Suns in the first half and basically already won the game before the second half began.
Not unlike Tuesday night’s home win over the Kings right (Suns were down 19 at halftime)? Wrong. While the Kings are a pretty good team this year, the Nuggets are simply one of the best in the league.
And this time, the Suns will be doing it without Devin Booker, who is questionable but almost certainly not going to play due to lower back spasms from a hard fall last week.
Denver struggled to close games last year with their young stars, but have had no issues this year in their second season under Mike Malone and a fairly stable roster, winning 28 of their first 40 games.
Center Nikola Jokic has become one of the best players in the league, a nightly triple-double threat (averaging 19.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.6 assists per night) who roasted the Suns’ Deandre Ayton and Richaun Holmes in prior games. Jokic does not look supremely athletic, but has the innate passing, scoring and rebounding skills to simply dominate each night now that he’s grown into his NBA body at 23 years old.
Jamal Murray and Gary Harris (the latter is questionable tonight) are the star back court of combo guards not quite pass-happy enough to be lead guard but Jokic does that from the high post so Murray and Harris are excellent as snipers and scorers. Neither shoots the three ball well (each are 33 percent) but they score in so many ways it’s impossible to defend without a little luck.
After those three, you’ve got the finally-healthy Paul Millsap at power forward — a little less effective than his heyday in Atlanta but still one of the better power forwards in the league and certainly big enough to cause the Suns problems with their undersized lineups around Ayton.
Coming back soon from injury is super-sixth-man Will Barton. Barton may not quite play Saturday, but he’s been upgraded to questionable for the first time since he got injured in game two of the season against these same Suns.
Off the bench, the Nuggets have gotten great contributions from Juancho Hernangomez and Monte Morris, two great draft picks by the brother of a former Suns assistant GM. In fact, the Nuggets have simply killed it in the draft to build the top seed in the West. Every one of their afore-mentioned players were great picks where they were taken, while Barton is the only one of them not drafted directly by Pat Connelly’s brother Tim’s front office group.
Overall, the Nuggets have the Western Conference’s best record, the league’s 5th best offense and 10th best defense.
However, lately the Nuggets have relied more on offense than defense (23rd since December 15, for example), a slightly concerning sign that Denver will have to correct to remain at the top of the West all season.
You saw the Booker-less Suns split their games this week, beating the Kings on Bright Side Night and then losing to the free-throw happy Mavericks the next night in Dallas.
What team will we see tonight?
The key to this game, in my opinion, is Josh Jackson. The Suns will need a near-career game from Jackson to have a shot at beating the Nuggets. I mean, they’ll also need very good games from Kelly Oubre Jr., De’Anthony Melton, Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton, but without Booker the Suns rely a great deal on Josh Jackson as the playmaker to start off possessions. And that’s scary.
Jackson has exploded in January (5 games), making 54 percent of his shots and 46 percent of his threes (adding up to a 62.6 true shooting percentage) while pouring in 16.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and nearly two steals per game in 27 minutes.
This is the second straight season Jackson has stepped it up in January as he adjusts to a new coach and scheme. He’s a whirling dervish of energy out there, and seems to have trouble making split-second decisions unless he knows the expectations inside and out. Thinking too much ruins a speed-based game. I wonder how he would look in a season where he’s not learning a new coach.
Many of you don’t get The Athletic, but the inimitable Bob Young posted a piece this week on the rookie wall, which players don’t realize or admit to but trainers know for sure is a “thing” based on high-end performance tracking data. There’s significant worry that the Suns, with four rookies in the top-9 rotation, will experience a dip over the next month as these guys slow down just a little bit even if they don’t realize its happening. Two of Ayton’s only three games this year where he failed to reach double digits in either points or rebounds have occurred over the past week as the rookies push themselves into the 40-plus game mark for the first time in their lives.
You know the prediction. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to predict the outcome a game pitting a 28-12 team against a 10-33 team, not even considering it’s without Booker.