The Denver Nuggets couldn't have turned in an uglier first half than they did tonight and that ultimately would lead to a big loss on the road against the Phoenix Suns. The game got out of hand early as Denver showed signs of fatigue from being on the second night of a back to back. Phoenix meanwhile was well rested and Eric Bledsoe took control of the game to ensure a Suns victory.
Things started out nice enough for Denver as Kenneth Faried put in a monster jam on a putback from a Danilo Gallinari three and Emmanuel Mudiay had a lucky three go in on a bank. It quickly went down hill from there. Denver was ahead 9-5 before the Suns ripped off a 17-0 run. The Nuggets were playing sloppy defense from the get go but at first they weren't getting hurt by it because Phoenix couldn't buy a bucket and was playing equally sloppy. Unfortunately, Denver's shooting woes continued whereas Phoenix started to get theirs to fall. Too often the Nuggets passed up opportunites to get inside, or didn't even attempt to get inside, which led to contested jump shots on tired legs which of course leads to a lot of bricks to the tune of 20% shooting from the field. Coach Malone tried going small by subbing out J.J. Hickson for Will Barton but lazy passes, slow rotations on defense and zero ball movement (zero assists in the first quarter) continued to doom the Nuggets. Mudiay was struggling in particular and found himself getting the quick hook from the coach.
It got no better in the second for Denver. In fact it got worse. The Nuggets not only continued to miss their jump shots but even when they got to the lane, or more specifically when Jameer Nelson was the only person attempting to get to the lane, they still couldn't get anything to go down. Meanwhile Bledsoe decided to take all the shots and when he missed, which was rare, Tyson Chandler was right there to clean up. Lack of size really hurt Denver in the second as Nikola Jokic got into foul trouble and had to sit. On the bright side Barton and Kostas Papanikolaou were able to bring some energy but they were being offset by the unheralded Archie Goodwin who was providing nice play off the bench for the Suns. Denver continued to look lethargic, they were standing and watching rather than boxing out, reaching instead of staying in front of their man and overall looking extremely sluggish. The second quarter could have been far more catastrophic as at one point Brandon Knight fell on Barton's leg and it looked like Barton could have suffered a gruesome knee injury. Miraculously, Barton was able to bounce up after a few seconds and continued to play. The Nuggets dodged a bullet there. They also improved their assist numbers...to one. The half ended with back to back 24 second violations from Denver and Phoenix running an inbound alley oop to Chandler with 0.9 seconds left and to give the Suns a 60-28 lead.
With the game already virtually wrapped up by half, Kenneth Faried was dealing with back spasms and sat for the second half. It looked positive to start as Gallo opened with an aggressive drive to the lane to get to the line and there was hope Denver might pick up the energy. Give credit where credit is due, even with Denver shooting terribly and seemingly being allergic to the lane, Phoenix was playing very solid defense and was excellent on their rotations. Mudiay started to find some success from mid-range, though it was limited. Really only two guys were bringing it for Denver: Barton and Papanikolaou. Barton had a monster block on a fast break and Kostas was playing his butt off. Despite their efforts the Suns started to smell the blood in the water and began to really push the pace in the third. Bledsoe just kept on shooting (and making) and his counterpart in Mudiay kept on struggling, at one point even tossing up an air ball on a wide open three pointer.
The fourth quarter was pure garbage time for both teams as they started going heavily to the bench. Goodwin was back providing a boost for the Suns and for Denver, well, it was Barton and Papanikolaou. Jokic also had some nice plays and was starting to get the flow of things, but it was far too little far too late. The subs wrapped up the fourth and Phoenix closed it out with a W. Final score 105-81, Suns.
Key Matchup: Nuggets back court vs. Suns back court
Knight and Gary Harris were fairly quiet in the game but Bledsoe put up thirty points. Somehow he managed to also get four assists in there though I swear I can't remember him ever passing the ball. Unfortunately for Denver fans Mudiay was noticeably bad. He continued to shoot even though it wasn't falling, similar to last night, and when the team has one assist in the first half, you have to look at the starting PG. The bright spot was obviously Barton who continues his excellent play. He's always had the energy going for him, but his game is evolving and there were several times tonight where he was creating for others with his ball handling and aggressiveness. He also led the team in rebounds with twelve.
What to watch for: Energy
As I noted in the preview, I was concerned that Denver wasn't going to take the game seriously and had already chalked it up as a loss before they even got on the court. It certainly felt like that. Virtually everything that is energy based in basketball was missing tonight for Denver. No aggressiveness, no boxing out, not closing out, not rotating, settling for (and bricking) jump shots, it was all there tonight. The silver lining in this is it makes you appreciate guys like Barton and Papanikolaou as they brought it all game long, even in the fourth when the game was clearly over they continued to play with energy. Hopefully the rest of the team will take note as Coach Malone (who didn't mince his words) said in the post game "no excuses, they kicked our ass, plain and simple."
The return of the king.
No Joffrey Lauvergne tonight unfortunately as he is still dealing with the sore back. Chris Dempsey of the Denver Post stated on twitter that Lauvergne is now shooting for Tuesday's match up against New Orleans as his return. Additionally, Dempsey has noted that Jusuf Nurkic has started undertaking non-contact drills in practice which is an indication that he is getting close to a return. This is good because, as I noted, size hurt Denver early in the game when Chandler was getting minutes and as a whole Denver was out rebounded by fifteen.
Well, I predicted a loss and got that right, unfortunately I had the Nuggets fading in the fourth quarter...not after the first four minutes of the game. Denver falls to 5-5 on the season and yours truly falls to 0-5 (counting preseason) on the recaps. I think I'm not due for another until December so there's hope.
Box score via ESPN.com