The Phoenix Suns may have lost to the Denver Nuggets last night, but respect was earned. No, probably not from the Nuggets’ faithful. Phoenix had 14 more free throws than Denver and therefore the game was improperly officiated and their two-time MVP Nikola Jokic was most likely “mugged” and “assaulted”.
Hey, Denver: it’s hard to get to the line when you are making countless uncontested layups all night long. Yeah, the Suns’ defense had its issues. Their attention to off-ball cutters was non-existent. The Nuggets took 25 shots inside of five feet, making 19, which was the zone they lived in all night.
Just a bunch of warmup jumpers, back door cuts, and easy layups all night. It’s far too easy for Denver. The Suns defense has been awful tonight.— Saul Bookman (@Saul_Bookman) December 2, 2023
The respect that was earned was for the efforts put forth by 9th-year big Jusuf Nurkic, who showcased some his his physicality against the Joker as well as his competitive desire and willingness to step up to a situation, not step down or away. Despite fouling out, he had his most significant overall performance this season, scoring a season-high 31 points.
Nurkic has had his peaks and valleys throughout the season, especially to those who simply view his effectiveness through the lens of the boxscore. 8 times in 19 games he has scored less than 10 points. 11 times he has had less than 10 rebounds. What is the key statistic there, however? 19 games played.
Yes, if your preseason BINGO card has “Jusuf Nurkic will be the only player on the Suns to start the first 19 games of the season”, go ahead and check that box. And kudos to you, because that is a lot of text to fit into a tiny box, so you either have great eyesight or your prescription is spot on.
I’ve mentioned it before, but the price-for-value-paid that Nurkic provides, coupled with his fit into what the Vogel system needs, makes him an ideal center for the Suns.
On Friday night, we witnessed what he could bring if and when the Suns play the Nuggets in the postseason. Without Devin Booker or Bradley Beal, Nurkic brought additional offense next to Kevin Durant that was much needed. More importantly, he brought a willingness and competitive fire to stand up to Nikola Jokic.
Did he stop the best player in the NBA? No. No one can. If you take away scoring from Jokic, he’ll dissect you with passing. If you play straight up and take a passing, he’ll cook you with his scoring. Try to take away both somehow, and rebounding will be his focus. He’s just that good.
Did Nurk neutralize him? Jokic went for 21 points on 9-of-18 shooting and had 5 rebounds, but took advantage of the weak side defense mishaps and dished out 16 assists.
But Nurk stood up to him, backed him down, and came back for more.
In the waning moments of the third quarter, with the Suns down 88-83, Nurkic backed down Jokic. After a forearm was thrown into his back by Jokic, he aggressively went to back down again. Jokic, who was setting him up for the offensive foul, played the officials like a mandolin who took the bait and dramatically fell to the floor. Offensive foul on Nurkic.
What did Nurkic do after receiving his third foul? He didn’t throw his hands up, put his head down, and decide to disengage. No. He wanted more. He wanted to attack the flopping Jokic.
The next two possessions down the court, the Phoenix Suns fed Nurkic the ball, who once again in isolation backed down the reigning NBA Finals MVP. It felt like a battle of the bigs from the 80s or 90s. Two behemoths going mano y mano. You wanted to grab the nearest under-30-year-old you knew and say, “Hey! This is what basketball used to be like!”
Both times Nukric was successful.
Respect earned. In those moments, facing up against the best player in the league, Jusuf Nurkic earned the respect of the fan base. That is, if he didn’t have it already.
I hate to dwell on the past and play the “what if” game, but our recent memories coming from the center position bring a specific emotion to the surface. In those moments when Nurkic and Jokic, both former teammates in Denver, we knew the off-season move to bring him to Phoenix was the right one. He’s not the most athletic. He’s not the best shooter. He’s not the most skilled.
But he cares.