The Denver Nuggets lost to the Phoenix Suns 104-97 on Wednesday night in a game that simply came down to who made open shots and who did not. The Nuggets shot 10-fof-40 from deep as the Suns packed the paint to slow down Nikola Jokic, while Phoenix made 16 of its own 33 threes. Jokic finished with another Sombor double at 22 points, 9 rebounds and 10 assists, but only getting 15 points from the bench meant that even with the starters all scoring in double figures the Nuggets just didn’t have enough of a scoring punch. Kevin Durant led the Suns with 30 points while Booker had 17 points and 9 assists, but the Suns took care of business with a well-rounded attack that always seemed to make the shot to halt any kind of Denver run. The energy the Nuggets didn’t have tonight will hopefully show up on Friday against the Minnesota Timberwolves because this game felt far too much like a walkthrough for a game that counted as a loss in the box score.

Game Recap

Bradley Beal and KCP opened the game with matching threes. Beal hit a second one, Jokic made a baseline bucket answered by a similar shot by Phoenix, and then KCP missed a three but got his own rebound and passed to Aaron Gordon for a thunderous dunk. Kevin Durant made his free throws, Pope made another three for Denver, and then AG made a bank shot for the 12-10 Denver lead. Kevin Durant and Devin Booker answered with a pair of threes, then Gordon’s dunk couldn’t stop the three-ball trend as Grayson Allen hit yet another one and forced a timeout at 19-14 Phoenix. Out of the timeout, MPJ hit a tough long two then a three of his own to tie the game. Allen made a running floater for Phoenix, MPJ made free throws, and KCP did his part to keep up with the Suns’ hot shooting by hitting another three. Christian Braun and Peyton Watson missed some wide open shots, Beal and Collin Gillespie traded threes, and Gillespie made free throws at the end of the quarter to tie it at 29 after one.

Peyton Watson got blocked early in the second quarter on his way to the rim and Reggie Jackson missed a three, while Kevin Durant finished a traditional three-point play. Julian Strawther hit a nice quick floater, Durant replied with a tough paint pull-up, and back to back blocks by Watson and Christian Braun stuffed some Phoenix scoring attempts. The bench unit for Denver couldn’t get rebounds, however, playing extremely small with Peyton Watson at the 5, and Phoenix took an 8-point lead at 39-31 after Eric Gordon made a three. Jokic came back in early but Bol Bol also hit a three. MPJ and Drew Eubanks exchanged dunks, and KCP hit a jumper before MPJ hit a tough three to cut the Phoenix lead to 7. Allen and Bol Bol hit the 9th and 10th threes of the game for Phoenix, but Gordon hit a dunk and a putback to keep Denver within striking distance. Gillespie hit another 3, and Jokic made a floater over Bol’s outstretched arms. Bol made another baseline jumper that Jokic answered in the paint, and Durant made a shot then blocked MPJ at the rim. Porter hit a three the next time down to close the gap to one bucket, but a Durant jumper, a missed MPJ dunk, and a Thaddeus Young buzzer beating putback over Jokic made it 59-52 Phoenix at the half.

Reggie Jackson opened the second half with a nice drive to the bucket, but KD answered with a jumper. Jokic stripped it from KD the next time down to start a break that finished with a Gordon dunk. Jokic then had a turnover that became a KD layup, and Nikola missed an early three that Durant made on his side to put Phoenix up 13 at 69-56. Denver was cold and slow just a few minutes into the third, and MPJ’s corner turnover didn’t help. Jokic made a paint bucket but Porter bricked a three, and Jokic stripped the ball from Booker but didn’t get the foul call on Booker by the refs after he cuts KCP’s face with his fingernail and then Jokic also gets fouled by him. AG made a pair of free throws, KD turned it over, and Jokic made a paint bucket to cut the lead to single digits. Jokic missed a three but made his next, followed by a traditional three-point play to close to 71-68 as Denver’s defense tightened to force tougher shots and turnovers from Phoenix. Durant made a tough shot over good defense from MPJ, and MPJ missed a three on the other end. Devin Booker made a three to push the lead back to 8 and Gillespie missed another reluctant shot. Eric Gordon pushed the lead back to double digits for Phoenix at 79-68. Jokic missed a buzzer three, and Reggie Jackson missed his sixth shot of the night with a bricked layup but then made his next one. Jackson hit a contested three, Thaddeus Young made a driving layup and Reggie’s missed three at the buzzer left it at 83-73 Phoenix.

Young and Eric Gordon start Phoenix off with a pair of buckets while the Denver bench unit looked very out of sorts. Gordon airballed a three before making a step back corner 3 on a later possession, and Watson forced Bol into a pair of misses. Jokic came back in with 9:12 remaining though because the Denver offensive execution was so poor. Watson made a free throw for Denber, Jokic made a nice paint bucket and Watson tipped in a Gordon miss to close it to 89-81. As they had all night though, Phoenix made a three to stop a Denver run, this time by Royce O’Neale. Grayson Allen buried another one over MPJ, Peyton Watson made a putback, but Durant nailed another 3. Down the stretch Denver couldn’t or wouldn’t get stops, and Aaron Gordon got a charge called on him that signaled the beginning of the end. KCP got a steal but gave it right back, and while Denver played hard in the final two minutes to drag out the ending, it would have been better if they had done that in the prior 46 minutes. Phoenix took the win from a gasless Nuggets squad 104-97.

Final Thoughts

– Phoenix conned Denver into playing the game the way the Suns wanted. They threw two and three bodies at Nikola Jokic early, which led to him passing the ball out rather than imposing from the paint, and it left Denver with just 46 paint points in the game which was 8 below their season average, and several of which were concession buckets in the final minutes. Denver abandoned the paint, and shooting threes poorly was not a good alternative plan. Denver went 10-of-40 from behind the arc, and the high number of bricks led to Phoenix outrebounding the Nuggets by 13 despite not having Jusuf Nurkic. The Suns only have a chance against the Nuggets if they can make the math work in their favor and the Nuggets gave Phoenix the opportunity to work out the math problem. Denver had just 5 fast-break points and 1-for-8 in transition, and the lack of energy that shows was present all night. Denver just didn’t have the juice, but it started when they allowed Phoenix to dictate the terms of engagement and followed Phoenix’s lead all night.

– The bench was a disaster, and without Murray that really hurt. Reggie Jackson went 5-of-14 with the starters, so he would not have helped much, but the bench went 5-of-19 without him. The first few minutes of both the second and the fourth quarters crushed a lot of Denver’s momentum, and forced Jokic back into the game early both times. Coach Michael Malone for some reason went with a bench rotation that featured Peyton Watson at the 5 in their first stint, against two seven footers in Kevin Durant and Bol Bol. The results were predictable and the rebound struggles were immense as Denver was one-and-done on far too many bench shots. Gillespie made a couple of threes early but then choked when it was his turn to take the open shot the rest of the way, and that really hurt the Nuggets in key situations. When the bench doesn’t get turnovers to jumpstart their transition game and its shooters are unwilling to take shots and unable to get rebounds, there’s not a lot to be done. This was a painful performance from a squad that no longer needs an identity, just a way to survive until playoff time when the starters will have to carry the reserves in every configuration.

– The Nuggets blew their chance to step ahead in the race for home court. The Oklahoma City Thunder lost tonight and Denver could have taken the lead in the loss column over them, but instead the top three teams in the West are tied with 22 losses, including the Minnesota Timberwolves who Denver will host on Friday. Denver has a different gear when the playoffs come around but it was tough to see them unable to find anything close to that gear in this game. This was a missed opportunity. It’s not a back-breaker, but just a frustrating loss against a team that made shots while Denver simply did not.