The Suns’ ball movement was far more crisp to start this game than it had been in either game of the team’s weekend back-to-back. Most notably, Ricky Rubio looked spry and fully energized physically for the first time since returning from dealing with back spasms earlier this month.
Rubio was smart about driving for baskets and moving without the ball, setting the Suns up to take a 9-8 lead early, with four points coming from Rubio himself.
Early on, it also was shaping up to be a big Dario Saric night. The big man confidently pulled up for a three off the bounce in the face of Nikola Jokic early, then as the defense adjusted and closed out hard, he attacked off the dribble for an and-one layup a few moments later.
Consistent scoring and creation from Saric would go a long way to shore up the Suns’ offense. Yet a few minutes after the nice and-one, Saric air-balled a three.
Elie Okobo was the first guard off the bench, but he also came in for Rubio, a good sign for those hoping we see Rubio and Devin Booker staggered more going forward. The rotation was compromised, though, at the 3:08 mark, when Booker picked up his second foul by reaching in on Gary Harris. That put Booker on the bench earlier than expected.
All the while, Denver went on a huge run, starting 12-18 from the field and leading by 15 when Monty Williams called a timeout with 2:27 to go in the first period.
By the end of the first, Denver led, 34-22.
Both Booker and Rubio stayed on the bench to start the second, while Williams threw out a lineup with all three wings plus Ty Jerome and Frank Kaminsky.
That unit played well and cut the lead by one before the starting backcourt checked in. Cam Johnson in particular was incredibly active, rebounding well and moving without the ball to get open for shots. Johnson had five points and five boards in his first six minutes.
Most unexpected of all was Mikal Bridges knocking down back to back three-pointers in rhythm to cut the lead to its lowest point with 5:46 to go. Smart ball movement (what an idea!) put the Suns back in business, down just five, heading toward the half.
Per @nbastats page, tonight's was Devin Booker's first scoreless first half since March 17, 2017— Matt Petersen (@TheMattPetersen) December 24, 2019
The score was 56-49 at halftime.
This one felt a lot like the Houston game on Saturday. A better team just let the Suns stay in it, but the Suns weren’t disciplined enough to actually make up any real ground.
Booker was a bit more aggressive to open the half, but kept missing shots short. Between open threes and drives to the bucket, Booker was getting to his spots and finding open space in Denver’s typically stingy defense, but couldn’t convert.
Fortunately, the clock struck Saric right about that same time. The big man put back missed jumpers on back to back possessions to keep the Suns within single digits.
The Suns soon cut the Denver lead to 4 by locking down on defense and finally getting a couple buckets out of Booker. Next, foul No. 4 was called on Booker and he hit the bench.
An important 1:26 without Rubio or Booker to close the half favored the Suns, 5-2, thanks to a wild Carter jumper and Bridges fast-break layup.
They were down, 82-81, heading into the final period.
Then, the explosion. Johnson continued his strong rebounding but made an even bigger impact shooting the ball, making two huge threes that lit up Talking Stick Resort Arena with about 9:00 to go in the fourth.
Oubre capped off the festivities with an and-one layup on the break to put the Suns up 6, right after the fans got free tee shirts. Merry Christmas, Suns fans.
Then, another Booker foul. The fifth one. Back to the bench. Suns still up 7.
Denver turned the ball over four times in the first 6:06 of the fourth quarter. For once, it looked like the Suns would close a tight game.
While Booker struggled to find his shot, the Nuggets’ star stepped up. Behind Jokic, the Nuggets cut the lead to just 1 with about three minutes to go. Jokic was feasting on Kaminsky, so Williams went back to Baynes, already over-taxed but simply far more effective than Kaminsky defensively.
Another interesting lineup decision came from Williams to stay small, with Bridges at the 4 against Paul Millsap. Most of the night, Williams matched Saric’s minutes with Millsap’s. In crunch time, though, it hardly mattered, as Jokic controlled Denver’s offense.
With the score tied at 108 with a minute left, Bridges missed a layup against tough defense by Millsap, then Jamal Murray (a notorious Suns killer who hung a 50-piece in this building last year) hit a huge three to put Denver up, 111-108.
Booker, cold as hell, responded with a three of his own to tie the game with 0:25 remaining. It was a smart move by Williams to ensure, with one timeout left, that the Suns would be able to get another shot off before the final buzzer.
Nuggets timeout. Tied at 111.
Murray again. Another three.
2.5 seconds left. Timeout Suns. Enough time for one more shot.
Jerami Grant blocked Booker’s three from the corner and the Nuggets won.