The Denver Nuggets opened their preseason with arguably their biggest competitor, the Phoenix Suns. However, Phoenix opted to sit their big three stars: Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal, leaving a bit of a melodramatic matchup, but hey that’s preseason. The Nuggets were without Michael Porter Jr. and Christian Braun on their end but otherwise played the first half of the game with their regular rotation (or assumed regular rotation) players. The starters found their groove towards the end of the half and then it was one of their rookies that ended up being the talk of the game for his performance in the second half. Julian Strawther put on a phenomenal NBA debut scoring 20 points in 21 minutes and looking like the best player on the floor, including carrying the offense in the third quarter. The game finished with Denver’s deep reserves holding off multiple Suns rallies and the Nuggets securing their first victory of the preseason.

The Suns opened up the game with pace and shooting from distance while the Nuggets looked rusty. Probably an effect of Phoenix being on their second preseason game while Denver was playing their first. The sloppy turnovers continued for Denver as the first quarter progressed while they also looked flat footed on defense. That let the Suns open up a small lead. Denver found their footing about halfway through the quarter. Aaron Gordon had a nice block and the Nuggets perimeter players started knocking down threes to swing the game back in their favor. While the offense seemed to still be finding their rhythm, the Nuggets defense was on point, led by Gordon. Denver pushed the lead to a half dozen at the five minute mark when the first reserves, Reggie Jackson and Peyton Watson, came into the game and shortly after that Hunter Tyson checked in. Phoenix started checking in their reserves as well and hit three straight threes for a 9-0 run with the quarter winding down. The Nuggets full bench unit added Zeke Nnaji and Strawther rounding the five out. That group didn’t have a lot going for them on offense either, but they hung with the Suns on the other end including a classic Peyton Swatson moment. Jackson canned a three on the two for one attempt at the end of the quarter which gave Denver a 25-23 lead after one.

Strawther opened the second burying a three but the dings also seemed to be adding up. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope banged knees in the first quarter, Jackson was limping early on and in the first minute of the second Jamal Murray took a knee to the mid-section. Nothing serious, but always a bit terrifying to see any guy get bruised in preseason. Strawther brought the energy to the bench unit (plus Murray) but Eric Gordon got some good switches for easy buckets for the Suns. Phoenix was getting sloppy on their side though so Denver had a five point lead when Nikola Jokic checked back in and immediately scored with 8 minutes to go in the half. Coming out of the break Grayson Allen hit a pair of shots and the Nuggets went a bit cold while the Suns mounted a rally. Denver’s offense then disappeared entirely and the Suns came all the way back to tie the game at 38 with four minutes left in the half. Acting coach David Adelman chose to go with what I’m guessing would be the closeout lineup for the game if it actually counted to end the second quarter. Jokic, Gordon, Murray, Caldwell-Pope and Jackson played out the half down the stretch. That group found some rhythm with their guards once again finding success on the offensive end. KCP got it going in particular. The Suns were gifted a couple of foul calls right at the end of the half but Denver still went to the break up seven.

Adelman called it a night for all the starters and opened the second half with Jackson, Strawther, Holiday, Watson and DeAndre Jordan. That group immediately opened with a 24 second violation after Jackson bounced a fall-away three off the side of the backboard. The offense looking rusty was a theme of the first half and that continued into the second. Denver kept in front early in the half behind more good play from Strawther, Jackson and Jordan also connected for an alley-oop. Not much else was going the Nuggets way after that, Phoenix pushed back to within three while Denver looked sluggish. Tyson was back in for Watson who got a very long rest due to foul trouble and didn’t see another minute in the quarter. The Suns kept making buckets and the Nuggets kept having an answer. For Phoenix it was Josh Okogie doing the damage while Strawther continued to be the best player on the floor for Denver. Jalen Pickett got his first minutes with just over four minutes to go in the quarter and Denver leading by five as did Braxton Key. Every time Phoenix got it close Strawther had a response. Pickett knocked down a three and right after Strawther buried another, his fourth of the game, to push the Nuggets lead back to seven in the final minutes of the third. He pushed it to nine with a floater before Nnaji put the lead to double digits at the free throw line to finish the quarter.

Bol Bol opened the fourth with a step back three which brought the loudest cheers of the night from the Phoenix crowd. He followed it up with an offensive foul though. On Denver’s side Colin Gillespie got his first minutes of the night and Watson checked back in and quickly hit a three of his own. The Suns found some momentum from Bol and, like they had all night, kept hanging around and kept the score within five or so points. It went back and fourth between the deep bench units. Watson canned another three and both teams took advantage of some broken plays. Nnaji looked like he was taking the matchup with his former teammate Bol personally, first bodying him up in the post for a bucket and then taking him off the dribble for a drive and slam. Denver’s offense went cold after a Phoenix timeout which allowed the Suns to pull back with in three behind the ghosts of Nuggets past (Bol & Keita Bates-Diop) before Nnaji hit a three to push it back to six with only half a quarter to go in the game. The bench unit dialed up the defense while continuing to lean on Nnaji on offense. Once again though, Phoenix wouldn’t go away with Watanabe knocking down a corner three to bring the lead back to five with three and a half minutes remaining. Gillespie hit a nice drive for an and-one with just over a minute to go which amounted to the dagger for Denver. Nuggets get the victory 115-107.

Player of the night: Julian Strawther

It was the rookie’s night tonight and he had everything going on the offensive side. He hit four three pointers while mixing in floaters and his mid-range game. Maybe the most exciting part about Strawther’s game is that it all looked so natural and came within the flow of the game. With Holiday starting for Porter Jr. and Braun also sitting tonight I’m not sure that Strawther is currently in the rotation but he certainly couldn’t have made a better case for minutes than he did tonight. He’ll have to improve on the defensive end but it’s to be expected that the rookie will look a little lost on that end to start the season and he certainly wasn’t the worst of the group of youngsters at keeping up with NBA players. Bottom line, if Julian keeps playing within the game and rising to the occasion, Malone will have no choice but to play him just like he did last year with Braun.

Condolences to coach Malone and his family

It was announced today that Coach Michael Malone’s father, Brendan Malone, passed away. The elder Malone was an icon in NBA coaching, helped develop one of the most ferocious defenses in NBA history and dedicated his life to teaching and improving the game. No doubt, he was incredibly proud of his son who has followed in his footsteps in more ways than one, but perhaps most importantly in exemplifying strong character and morals. Michael spoke often about his relationship with his father and suffice to say it was very special. No doubt this is a painful day for him and all of the Malone family and my heart goes out to him.