On Saturday night, brave Phoenix Suns (11-33) fans who might have expected to witness another loss instead were treated to their best game of the season. The Suns aggressively held onto the lead for the final 38 minutes of the game against the top-ranked Denver Nuggets (28-13), winning 102-93.
The Nuggets had beaten the Suns handily their first two meetings this season, including cruising to a win just two weeks ago in this same setting.
“That team outplayed us tonight,” Denver coach Mike Malone said of the Suns. “They played harder than us tonight, and it was apparent throughout the game.”
The Suns outscored the Nuggets 26-9 in points off turnovers, 49-25 in bench points, 52-36 in points in the paint and 14-9 in second chance points.
“What impressed me the most is just how long we did it,” Josh Jackson said of their defense. “We did it for literally the whole game.”
The Suns best defense is a frenetic whirlwind of hands and arms getting into passing lanes to disrupt the opponents offense long enough to force a bad shot. That kind of defense is very difficult to maintain for long stretches, hence why the Suns are 28th in the league in defense for the season. On Saturday, they kept it up for all 48 minutes, holding Denver to their second-lowest point total of the season.
And all that without their best player, Devin Booker, who is still nursing a sore lower back from a hard fall a week ago. The Nuggets were without their own starting shooting guard, Gary Harris.
The starting unit, with three rookies and second-year player Josh Jackson among them, got after the Nuggets from the opening tip and the second unit, led by Kelly Oubre Jr. and Richaun Holmes did their job as well.
“Everyone did a good job of locking in,” Oubre said. “I’m really happy with the way the second unit plays now.”
With Booker out, Jackson has moved into the starting lineup and new signee Quincy Acy has gotten some hustle good minutes off the bench.
Rookie starting point guard De’Anthony Melton had a career high 10 assists on offense (against only 2 turnovers) along with 4 steals and a block on defense. The Suns had 11 steals as a team.
“He did a good job of defending and getting in transition,” Jackson said of Melton. “And it made it really easy for us to see guys that were open. We just all ran the floor and played to our athletic ability. So, you know, he did a really good job of making decisions, finding us.”
Jackson himself put in 15 points while dishing five assists and grabbing four rebounds.
The stars of the game were Kelly Oubre Jr. and Deandre Ayton.
Oubre had his best game as a Sun, with 26 points and 11 rebounds off the bench, along with three assists and a pair of steals.
He was happiest about the Suns effort on defense. Oubre, Mikal Bridges and De’Anthony Melton combined to lock down on Jamal Murray, holding him to 4 of 17 shooting for just 12 points, after Murray made 9 of 11 threes on the way to 46 points two weeks ago.
“Pressure,” he said of the difference in the game. “Just taking away the three point shot, making them second-guess. He had a pretty good game last time they were, so he was kind of a focal point.”
“His aggression is really contagious,” Ayton said of Oubre.
One time, Oubre flew in to barely beat Ayton to an offensive rebound, dunking it hard through the net right back onto Ayton. It was good to see multiple efforts on both ends of the floor to finish possessions.
Deandre Ayton had one of his best games as well. Ayton has been up and down lately, but he came out hard and strong against Nikola Jokic and kept it up all game.
“That’s very personal for him,” Oubre said of Ayton against Jokic. “Jokic is an All-Star big man and Deandre wants to be great. He takes those matchups seriously.”
In the second game of his career, Ayton scored only five points and grabbed seven rebounds against Jokic, while allowing the All-Star to have a perfect night from the floor on the way to an impressive triple double.
Two weeks ago, Ayton was much better with a career-high 33 points and 14 rebounds plus four steals, though 24 of those points were in a second quarter where the Suns were already down 20+ points when his personal run began. Jokic still had nearly a triple double as the Nuggets held off a late Suns rally to win 122-118.
On Saturday night, Ayton arguably had a bigger impact than Jokic for the first time in his young career. It was only one night, but an important one. Ayton finished with 22 points, 13 rebounds and three big blocks while Jokic had 22 points, 10 rebounds and four assists.
“I told coach I just wanted to guard him myself,” Ayton said later, though he said it was a group effort against the whole Nuggets team. “If you see anything, just throw an adjustment in there, but yeah.”
Coach Igor Kokoskov was constantly yelling for the guys to get out and run in transition on opponent misses.
“Yeah I heard him,” Ayton said. “A few times. Yeah, he’s not quiet. When me and Jokic are battling, just try to outrun him.”
Ayton did that, several times beating Jokic back down the floor and finishing in a primary or secondary transition.
Just last week, the Suns were able to get in a practice or two for the first time since before the holidays, and then had another practice on Friday in a rare two-day-off break in the schedule after a back-to-back against the Kings and Mavericks earlier in the week.
Practices are important for a young team learning on fly, with players moving in and out of lineups and on and off the roster. Since the first Denver game, the Suns have moved on from veteran cogs Tyson Chandler, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson and Isaiah Canaan while incorporating Booker (who missed training camp, preseason and several other games) and Kelly Oubre Jr. and increasing the workload of three other rookies.
“Practice makes perfect,” Ayton said.
Without practice, you can’t get comfortable with defensive rotations.
“It was trust,” he said of their consistent effort and success on defense. “Me going high on ball screens, knowing when my guy rolls the weak side will shift over. Just having that trust in practice, we’ve been practicing that over and over.”
And that helps everyone keep up their frenetic energy level.
“We were the aggressors today,” Ayton said.