The Denver Nuggets are in the middle of a five games in seven nights stretch and it appeared that the fatigue finally caught up to them. They fell behind early to the Phoenix Suns and were unable to climb all the way back late in what turns out to be an ugly loss against the worst team in the Western Conference. DeAndre Ayton and Kelly Oubre Jr had big performances to offset the efforts of Nikola Jokic and Malik Beasley. On the positive side for Denver, Will Barton made his return to the court after missing thirty-eight games but it was spoiled by the Suns pulling off the shocker and winning this one 102-93.

The Nuggets opened the game sloppily with a pair of turnovers and no points in nearly two minutes. The Suns though were having trouble finding scoring without Devin Booker and weren’t able to take advantage. Ayton was their best option and he put in work in the post to not let Denver pull away early either. Phoenix was able to build a small lead midway through the quarter with Denver struggling. After a timeout the Nuggets got a bucket off a nice two man game between Murray and Jokic but the Suns were outworking them, particularly on the glass, and they maintained the lead. With just over three minutes to go Barton checked in for the first time since mid October along with the rest of the bench. Barton’s rust showed and the Suns got hot from distance. Will finally found his shot with a corner three to stop a 10-0 Phoenix run but the Nuggets trailed by eight after the first quarter.

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Denver opened the second quarter with another turnover (Murray charge) and continued to struggle on offense, the Suns weren’t lighting it up either but they were able to get a basket here and there and pushed the lead up to double digits. With still over nine minutes to go the Nuggets already had nine turnovers for eighteen Suns points. Oubre Jr was killing Denver with his outside shot and Josh Jackson got a pair of buckets to push Phoenix’s lead to fifteen which forced coach Malone to take a timeout. The starters came back in and immediately got on a run behind the energy of Beasley. Phoenix took a timeout of their own then quickly regained control of the game. Denver started to turn the ball over again and Oubre Jr started knocking down threes again. Around the three minute mark Denver’s starters finally started to find some life. Murray found Beasley on a nice alley-oop and later knocked down a three as the Nuggets trimmed the lead. Phoenix pushed back to close out the half though to get a thirteen point lead.

The Nuggets opened another quarter with early turnovers, forcing coach Malone to take a timeout after just one minute. Phoenix continued to attack the paint and Ayton continued to dominate inside which allowed the Suns to increase their lead. Malone went to Monte Morris earlier than usual which sparked some energy for Denver. They started to chip away at Phoenix’s lead again and when Morris found Millsap on a nice bounce pass in the lane at the five minute mark Denver had the Suns lead trimmed back below ten. The Nuggets had a couple chances to trim the lead even more but fumbled them away. Denver’s bench checked in to close out the quarter. They weren’t able to close the gap on Phoenix any more and Oubre Jr, who was having a monster game, banked in a three pointer at the buzzer to put Phoenix back up by twelve.

The Nuggets opened the fourth quarter ice cold from the floor but luckily Phoenix wasn’t converting either. Ayton bullied the Denver inside to offset what little scoring they got but the Nuggets kept hanging around that ten point mark. Phoenix pushed back with a mini 5-0 run behind Ayton and a T.J. Warren three to put the Suns up by fifteen and the Nuggets on life support. Malone kept with the starters halfway through the fourth, looking for one last run to try to steal the game. Joker got an and-1, then followed it up with a three pointer from the top of the arc to force a Phoenix timeout with the lead back down to eight. The Nuggets pushed it as close as seven and had a couple opportunities to get it even closer but couldn’t convert. It was getting to the point where every basket by the Suns hurt double because the clock was running out. Jackson missed a dunk and Morris got a great look from three to try to cut it to six with about 2 minutes to go but he missed which sort of took the air out of the comeback. He’d convert an and-1 with a minute to go to try and create one last gasp but ultimately the clock would run out and the Suns finished Denver off from the free throw line.

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Key matchup: Nikola Jokic vs DeAndre Ayton

This could very well be a marquee center battle for years to come. Ayton and Jokic once again had a great battle down low with each player being a big part of his teams effort. Ayton’s size and strength is just so much to handle, even when Mason Plumlee was matched up against him there was little Plumlee could do to slow Ayton, especially on the glass. Jokic didn’t get his third triple double in a row, but he was definitely the Nuggets best player throughout the game and still had a big night scoring the basketball. He did his best with little help on offense and nearly willed the Nuggets to a victory late.

Key takeaway: Will Barton was rusty

It was a great moment to see Barton check in for the first time since the second game of the season. Will is going to be a huge part of this Nuggets team and getting him back is like trading for a huge piece mid season. However, being out for more than two months takes it’s effect and it showed tonight. Barton’s shot was off all night and he went 2-10 from the field. He also didn’t have his usual bounce, which is to be expected. No doubt Will was feeling it out tonight, making sure he can trust his body to go 100% in an NBA game. Hopefully with the first game back jitters behind him Will can come out tomorrow against his former team and have a big night.

Closing thought: Nuggets looked flat

I said before the game that this was a definite trap game and that’s exactly how it turned out. Denver looked sluggish from the get go and their sloppy play really killed them. Any time it looked like they were building some momentum a string of turnovers swung things back in favor to Phoenix. It’s been a couple months since Denver dropped a game against a clear lottery team but it wasn’t all that hard to see coming. Other than Jokic, Beasley was the only guy who gave consistent production throughout the game. It didn’t necessarily look like Denver was disinterested, but fatigue played a factor and the Nuggets got caught by surprise early in the game and never recovered.