The Denver Nuggets made changes to their starting lineup as the Phoenix Suns came to town in an effort to jump start their sputtering team. Trey Lyles was inserted at the power forward spot, Nikola Jokoic went back to playing center and Mason Plumlee started the game on the bench. Jamal Murray returned from a one game absence and had a big night for the Nugget but Devin Booker and T.J. Warren had bigger nights. A big run by the Suns in the second quarter would end up spelling doom for the Nuggets and they take the loss.

Denver opened up strong, scoring the first eight points of the game behind a pair of threes from Murray and Gary Harris. Warren and Booker eventually got the Suns on the board and would actually score their first eleven points. Murray led the Nuggets in scoring early and overall their offense was effective. The defense tightened up as the quarter moved past the half way point. With just under 4 minutes left the Suns had got nothing from anybody other than Warren and Booker, outside of one Dragan Bender three. It didn’t matter much because Warren was getting whatever he wanted. Jokic got a couple buckets down the stretch, Malik Beasley and Isaiah Canaan traded 3 pointers in the final 15 seconds and the first quarter ended with the Nuggets up 31-29.

Denver came out cold to start the second quarter as the rest of their reserves checked in. Phoenix opened the quarter on a 10-0 run behind Canaan and coach Malone was forced to take a timeout. Murray finally got the Nuggets on the board with a three but Canaan answered right back with one of his own. Malone brought the starters back in early to try to get the offense going and Harris and Murray were doing what they could but Canaan had suddenly morphed in Stephen Curry and was hitting every three he put up. The second quarter was also a tale of what we’ve seen plenty of times, the Nuggets shied away from contact and settled for jumpers, meanwhile the Suns got open threes or easy buckets at the basket. At the 4 minute mark a sequence that perfectly summed up the quarter happened: Jokic settled for a mid-range jumper which he bricked, the Nuggets lost Booker on defense on the other end for an open 3 and then followed that up with an immediate turnover…ugly. Denver luckily had a solid stretch to close out the quarter behind Murray and Harris (who else) but still trailed the Suns by ten points at half.

Denver got the second half momentum going with a pair of huge dunks from Murray who was pretty much unstoppable. His strong opening play helped the Nuggets open the half on a 9-2 run and get them back within three points of the lead. The Nuggets couldn’t get all the way back though, largely to do with a suddenly very Suns favorable whistle. That was the main contributor to the Suns getting back up by double digits and also put the Nuggets into the penalty with over seven minutes still to go in the quarter. The Nuggets frustration continued with Murray picking up a technical but it was forgivable because he was absolutely shredding Phoenix on offense. Tyler Ulis needed some bailing out on offense so the refs called a foul and then Emmanuel Mudiay made a surprise appearance. Like the game on Wednesday against the Los Angeles Clippers, Emmanuel wasn’t hurting the team while he was on the floor. Unfortunately the Suns were enjoying a timeshare at the free throw line and that kept them in front. After three quarters the Nuggets still trailed by a dozen

Will Barton (who had been really struggling) and Mudiay got the scoring going for Denver to start the fourth by attacking the rim. They didn’t always get the bucket but they started piling up the fouls against Phoenix. The Nuggets were not closing the gap though because their defense was putrid. It seemed like there was always one guy on the floor the Nuggets kept forgetting about all night and for the first portion of the fourth quarter that guy was Josh Jackson who scored seven points in less than 60 seconds. Denver, as they have often done this season, wasn’t going to go quietly though. Mudiay hit a beautiful reverse layup to put Phoenix’s lead back into single digits with just over 7 minutes to go. Denver got stuck on that eight point hump for a couple minutes. Jokic wasn’t having a good night on offense and his frustration started to boil over when he got T’d up with less than six minutes to go. He’d calm down and nail a three which Harris followed with a layup and suddenly the Nuggets were within 4 points with four minutes left. Phoenix took a timeout and re-grouped. They scored two baskets in a row and put themselves back up by eight with under three minutes to go. Time started to become a factor for Denver, when Barton missed a wide open three with 1:30 to go it started to look very grim. He’d go 1 for 2 at the line his next trip down, Canaan hit a layup and it was all she wrote. Nuggets end up taking a disheartening loss that was highlighted by poor officiating but even poorer effort.

Best matchup: Gary Harris vs Devin Booker

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Booker had a big night for the Suns and was a major part in everything they did. Him, Warren, Canaan and Josh Jackson were essentially the only offense the Suns got all night. There’s no doubt about it, Booker is an elite offensive talent and shooter. Multiple times tonight he got off a shot with minimal to no space and still knocked it down. On the other side, Gary wasn’t full out en fuego like Booker or Murray was but he gave the Nuggets some solid buckets when they need them. His defense wasn’t awful either. Like I said, Booker had a hand in his face on a lot of his shots, he just had it going regardless.

Main thing I noticed: the officiating was garbage

Tyson Chandler should have been thrown out of the game. His flagrant foul was so clearly an excessive and unnecessary use of contact and he followed through when he threw Plumlee to the ground. It was an absolute garbage call to make that only a flagrant 1. The opening of the second half was also abysmal. The refs gave some clear bail out calls to Booker and called a foul per minute on Denver in the first five minutes of the half. We’ve seen it time and again in the NBA but the officiating seems to be especially awful this year. I’m not sure exactly why that is but the NBA needs to get it figured out and soon.

Closing thought: changing lineups can have long term gains but…

Tonight is an example how in the short term it can hurt you. Don’t get me wrong, separating Plumlee and Jokic for the majority of their minutes is a good thing but tonight we saw how that lack of continuity can hurt a team. The main moment to point to when it comes to this game getting away was the start of the second quarter. That also coincides with when the Nuggets went with a bench + Murray lineup. Again, in the long run this will probably work out for the best but the change to the starting lineup definitely made the bench unit more discombobulated tonight and that ended up being the opportunity Phoenix needed to steal a win.

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