PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns looked like a well-oiled machine for a greater part of their 100-93 win over the Denver Nuggets Friday night.
But it only took one time for them to sputter to allow what could have been a blowout win to shrink to a two-possession game.
Phoenix dominated the first half against Denver, as it shot 50 percent from the field and limited the Nuggets – who were without starting center and MVP candidate Nikola Jokic, starting guards Jamal Murray and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and forward Michael Porter Jr. – to 37 percent shooting and submitted them to a 20-point deficit.
The Suns led by as many as 27 after a two-point shot from starting forward Kevin Durant with 8:12 left in the third quarter. Before then, Phoenix made things look easy with a transition play that saw starting guard Devin Booker throw a behind-the-back pass to Durant, who tossed a one-handed pass to cutting starting center Deandre Ayton for an easy dunk.
They literally look like the Harlem Globetrotters in this clip. pic.twitter.com/aZXqxFI25o— Suns Are Better (@SunsAreBetter) April 1, 2023
However, things started to fall apart for the Suns in their victory over Denver at Footprint Center in front of 17,071 fans, the reported 64th consecutive sellout at the arena. Denver went on a 14-3 run after Durant’s shot, when the Suns let go of a game in which they could have rested their starters and instead had to fight through the end.
“We talk about our scale from being seven to ten, not one to ten and I thought it dropped below seven in the third quarter and we gave up so many offensive rebounds and transition buckets,” Suns coach Monty Williams said.
In a 4:07 span in which the Suns saw their lead fall from 27 to 16, they gave up four offensive rebounds and had five turnovers, including three that led to a dunk.
Phoenix was noticeably lax in that time, perhaps due to a chance to get its starters some rest time with five more regular-season games to gain chemistry with Durant in the lineup before the postseason. Instead, Denver continued to make a game out of it.
The Nuggets cut the Suns’ lead to as few as eight points with 1:26 left in the quarter after a 3-pointer from backup forward Zeke Nnaji. The Suns led by 10 after the quarter but were outscored 34-24 and allowed a game that should not have been close to be that way.
“The guys know it,” Williams said. “We dropped our standard in the third quarter, that was it.”
With Booker in for the entire third quarter, the Suns had to stagger their starting lineup in the fourth and even saw Durant check in with 3:45 left after the other four starters were in. It could have been due to his minutes restriction, which Durant said should be relinquished soon.
Phoenix’s advantage shrunk in the fourth quarter to five with 5:45 left and as few as four multiple times. For greater than a minute, the teams were tied at a 95-91 score before Booker hit a shot in the paint with 1:55 left to give the Suns what seemed to be the dagger.
Instead, Nuggets guard Bruce Brown hit a shot to cut the Nuggets’ deficit to four again before Suns starting wing Josh Okogie hit a corner 3-pointer to give his team a 100-93 lead with 45.1 seconds left.
That proved to be the shot the Suns needed to create final separation, but they felt it was a much harder end than it should have been. Phoenix ended up with 40 second-half points, its fourth-fewest this season, and 16 fourth-quarter points, its fifth-fewest in this campaign.
“We just got complacent, got relaxed and they didn’t,” Booker said. “Usually when a team is down, the other guys step up to the opportunity and want to prove themselves. Those guys did a good job of that tonight.”
Denver has tended to be a resilient team in the last two seasons after it reached the Western Conference Finals in 2020. The Nuggets have long been without Murray in the last season-and-a-half due to an ACL injury, which has accompanied a laundry list of players out in that time.
Now, the Nuggets are fully healthy and are the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. If things hold, the Suns (the No. 4 seed) could face them in the second round of the playoffs assuming both teams hold their current position and win their respective first-round series.
No matter who they play leading up to the playoffs, Williams said his team cannot afford to have letdowns like this.
“What I told them was, we don’t have enough games to do that,” Williams said. “We got five, six games left, so every time we step on the floor, it’s got to be with great attention and intention.”
In his second game back from a sprained left ankle, Durant had a positive performance overall with 30 points on 11-of-15 shooting and four rebounds. Booker had 27 points on 9-of-20 shooting.
The Suns have five regular-season games left to shore up their team before they enter postseason play. Durant looked much more like himself Friday night and the team appeared to have great chemistry for the first 2 1⁄2 quarters.
That is a positive sign for Phoenix, which is expected to have a deep playoff run with Durant. The only thing it can do is continue to build.
“I wouldn’t say we lacking in chemistry or anything like that,” Durant said. “When the shots go in, it feels like everything is working well for you. We got stops when we needed to. [Okogie] hit a big three in the corner and sealed the win. So we made some solid plays there in the fourth.”