The Denver Nuggets came out well, then stalled going into half-time, but closed the game strong and blew the Phoenix Suns out to finish the game, 134-111. Gary Harris was the star of the game, pouring in a career-high-tying 36 points. Nikola Jokic started slowly but still finished close to a triple-double with 14 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists. Trey Lyles had 16, Wilson Chandler had 17, and both Malik Beasley and Will Barton finished in double-digits as well. The Suns had six players in double-digits but they aren’t built to win that way, and Devin Booker finished with just 17 points on 4-of-13 shooting.
Greg Monroe started the scoring with a hook shot over Jokic, but Gary Harris answered with a dunk assisted by Plumlee from the three-point line, followed by a Harris scoop-and-score runner. Tyler Ulis and Wilson Chandler traded buckets before Devin Booker made a three to put Phoenix ahead. Nikola Jokic looked out of sorts early with a turnover and a botched finish at the rim (as well as an erroneous pass from Plumlee to Jokic that caused another turnover). Jokic and Jamal Murray worked a give-and-go to get the lead back for Denver but Marquise Chriss hit another three for a 12-11 lead with four minutes gone. Plumlee had a second terrible entry pass into Jokic but Harris made a 15-footer on the reset and Murray buried a three off a steal to make it 17-12 Denver.
T.J. Warren hit a long two but Harris answered with a steal and a dunk and a three-ball to stretch the lead to 10 as Gary Harris had 16 of Denver’s first 24 points. Kenneth Faried hit the court with three minutes to go and immediately dunked a lob from Will Barton. No Sun could stop Harris as he laid a drive in past Josh Jackson to get to 20 points for the quarter, but Devin Booker got to the line to keep Phoenix within hailing distance. The second unit for Denver settled for distance shots they didn’t make over the final two minutes but the Nuggets still ended the quarter up 10, 34-24.
Faried started the second by goaltending Phoenix’s first shot of the quarter, but Beasley sank a three on the other end to make up for it. Denver still struggled to make shots and its ill-advised turnovers (like Beasley pulling a Barton and stepping out of bounds) let Phoenix close to within 5 at 37-32.
Not a big fan of the Barton-Beasley-Craig-Faried-Lyles lineup— Zach Mikash (@ZachMikash) January 4, 2018
Several starters came back in and Murray immediately made a bucket off a drive. The turnovers continued however with 4 in the first four minutes of the quarter and Phoenix retook the lead at 40-39 on a 14-5 run. Dragan Bender sank a three, Chandler answered, but Canaan answered back as Denver got into a shooting contest with the game Suns. Both teams assaulted the paint again with their starters back in, as Warren and Harris traded drives. Jokic had a pair of assists for a Chandler three and a Harris dunk but no one slowed the Suns who kept driving the bucket without resistance. Still, this was pretty:
Murray and Harris kept driving the lane but Denver’s inability to defend either the three point line or the lane in the second quarter caused all sorts of problems. Ulis hit a three to put Phoenix up 66-59, while Murray had a great play (a steal) followed by a silly turnover. Jokic tossed a full-court pass to Harris for a layup in the last basket of the quarter, but that only cut the lead to 6 at 67-61 after giving up a 41 point second quarter.
Jokic lost the ball to start Denver’s offensive possessions in the second half, and Plumlee botched an easy finish from Jokic the next time down. The blind flip pass from Jokic to Chandler was a charm the third time down, and Chandler’s next three put Denver down just one and Plumlee’s dunk finished a 7-0 run to give Denver the lead back briefly. The Nuggets rebounded better to start the third quarter, clamping down on any caroms as the Suns started 0-for-8. Denver’s turnover bug caught up with them again though, keeping them from making a real run. Jokic finished a three-point play then threw a stolen pass ahead to Jamal Murray for a dunk to make it 75-72 Denver. The Suns kept answering back, though, despite a Plumlee-to-Murray dunk. Then Trey Lyles and Gary Harris hit back-to-back threes for a little breathing room.
Trey Lyles sinks a 3-pointer, and #Nuggets have outscored Phoenix 24-10 in the third quarter to re-take control.— Gina Mizell (@ginamizell) January 4, 2018
Of course right after that, Bender hit another three, but Lyles answered again. Jokic took a pass off the face, but turned it into a behind-the-back pass to Malik Beasley for the dunk and a 9 point lead. Jokic hit a 3 in the final minute of the quarter, and Beasley challenged Booker then ran for an attempted dunk that turned into a questionable flagrant 1 with a completed layup for Beasley to end the quarter with Denver up 98-85.
Barton scored a couple of buckets early in the fourth and then Jokic threw a multiple-pump-fake full-court hockey assist of the kind only he can do. Beasley got a deflection, Jokic hit an 18-footer, and the Nuggets maintained their double digit lead despite a three-pointer from Josh Jackson. Beasley had another steal in what was a terrific all-around game from him, but Phoenix cut it to 10 on a Booker basket at 110-100 with just over 6 minutes to go.
The Nuggets closed hot, though, with Lyles making free throws and Harris converting a 4-point play to tie his career high at 36 and put Denver up 123-102 with four minutes to go. The Nuggets coasted from there and even put its deep bench in to finish the last two minutes off, and the Nuggets won the second half 73-44 and took the game 134-111.
- The Nuggets take these games against teams they should beat far too easily. Denver is not consistent enough to roll into these games and put in a couple of quarters’ worth of effort to coast to an easy victory. They found the right speed for the game after the half, which is always nice, but without Harris’s outstanding first half the Nuggets would have been in trouble against a team they should brush off. Denver needs to be careful of believing its own press clippings, especially this month. They won a game they should win, but it would be nice to see them take it seriously earlier in the contest.
- Malone still isn’t good at rotations, but players like Beasley still put their names in for consistent minutes going forward. Malone choosing to run all five of his bench guys together after having such a short bench for the last week was an odd choice, and he played Jokic for something like 20 minutes straight in the second half, but in those odd minutes he found a nice defensive rotation that enabled Denver to tip passes and close out on shooters. Malik Beasley was everywhere, doing a little of everything. His defense on Devin Booker was great and his slashing and willingness to put himself in the right position keyed several important stretches. Even if Malone cuts back on the rotation in the future, he should keep finding minutes for Beasley.
- Nikola Jokic needs to find his fire in every game. He was a step slow and reluctant to shoot all night. Thankfully Gary Harris was there to pick up the slack, but that can’t - and won’t - happen every game. Jokic was passing well but didn’t control the boards and wasn’t willing to score until late. Even his turnovers were of the careless variety. And then with three minutes to go in the third quarter Nikola found the switch, flipped it, and Denver pulled away like Secretariat down the stretch. He can’t do that. Harris might carry the scoring load in some games, Murray in others, but the Nuggets need an active and engaged Jokic consistently in order to get where they want to go.
- Thank God for Harris. Harris uber alles!