What: Denver Nuggets (20-8) at Phoenix Suns (11-18)
When: Monday, Dec. 23 at 7:00 p.m. MST
Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix, AZ
Watch: Fox Sports Arizona
Listen: 98.7 FM
Tracing back the root of the Suns’ recent issues isn’t easy. They have lost six straight, yes, but can you reasonably point to one single factor as the reason? I can’t. Devin Booker, Aron Baynes, Ricky Rubio and Deandre Ayton — the Suns’ four best players — have all struggled with injuries, but at the same time, the team has gotten so far away from its identity that it is almost unrecognizable.
Were they too reliant on Rubio? That much is starting to seem clear, as is the need for a player who can capably back him up. The lack of shot creation on this team generally has really been exposed while Booker deals with an injury to his shooting arm.
But all of that is a conversation for a different day. Right now, this team is searching for a viable rotation, trying to get healthy, and hoping they don’t fall too far out of the playoff picture before a cakewalk of a January schedule.
No. 2 in the Western Conference, 7-3 in their last 10 games
109.5 ORtg (15th) - 104.1 DRtg (2nd) = plus-5.3 netRtg (10th)
The Nuggets are one of the stranger teams to analyze in the NBA right now, as they are winning behind solid defense rather than offense. Despite a relatively disappointing start to the year from Nikola Jokic (whom I thought had a chance at MVP), they still have a great shot at the No. 1 seed in the West. They are winning with chemistry more than anything.
Though Denver is coming off a back-to-back, the Suns have been absolutely terrible at taking advantage of those situations this year, most notably against the Celtics when the Suns had three days of rest compared with zero for Boston. Plus, their first game of the back-to-back was a beatdown of the Lakers an hour away from the Valley by plane.
Paul Millsap led the Nuggets with 21 points in the game, while Denver had 31 assists to only eight turnovers as a team. Sure, the Lakers were without LeBron James, but it’s an impressive win regardless.
Tied for No. 11 in the Western Conference, 2-8 in their past 10 games
110.4 ORtg (10th) - 111.7 DRtg (17th) = minus-1.3 netRtg (16th)
Those numbers up their don’t tell even part of the story. Taking just the last two weeks into account, the Suns are actually 26th in defense, according to Cleaning the Glass, which erases garbage time stats from the equation.
Booker has admirably played his usual minutes despite being hampered by the arm injury, but he is a shell of himself. His defensive numbers have tanked, and he’s back to being one of the worst-graded players in the NBA. The ripple effect of all the injuries is taking a toll, as discussed above.
The latest on the injuries, via Gina Mizell of The Athletic:
Ricky Rubio is at #Suns shootaround but still TBD for tonight (waiting to see how he feels this afternoon). Deandre Ayton was able to do some warm-up/lighter stuff with the team, but is still out tonight.— Gina Mizell (@ginamizell) December 23, 2019
However, Phoenix has recently played well against this version of the Nuggets, notably beating them by 9 points back on Jan. 12 without Booker. Ayton scored 24 points in the second quarter of that game in one of the most dominating stretches of his career, slipping past Jokic in the pick-and-roll repeatedly.
The Suns also very nearly beat Denver in October. After Rubio was fouled on a last-second heave, he made all three free throws and sent the game to overtime, where Denver outscored Phoenix by just 1 point.
Do they have the magic to do it again despite the Nuggets’ recent surge? It will require a strong game on both ends from Baynes as well as disciplined team defense, which we haven’t seen from the Suns in weeks.
At some point, I truly believe this team will get back to its identity and make up some ground in the standings. But against a Denver team rounding into form, with a banged-up Booker and Rubio and no Ayton, the Suns will go into the three-day Christmas break losers of seven straight.
Nuggets 125, Suns 110