As special as Phoenix guard Devin Booker was, the Nuggets only had themselves to blame.
Costly turnovers and mental lapses dogged the Nuggets in the fourth quarter of Thursday’s thriller against Phoenix, and the Suns escaped with an impressive 140-130 win.
“Against the best team in the NBA, you can’t beat yourself and them in the same night,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “It’s just impossible.”
Booker was close to unstoppable, torching Denver for 49 points and 10 assists. His backcourt counterpart, Chris Paul, added 17 points and 13 assists in his return from injury.
“Once a guy gets on fire, it’s really hard to put that fire out,” Malone said.
The Nuggets, 43-31, hung with the Suns’ blistering offense until three devastating turnovers in under a minute stunted their fourth-quarter momentum. For the game, the Nuggets turned it over 17 times which led to 30 Phoenix points. Not even Nikola Jokic, who scored 28 points on only 10 shots, could save them.
Rookie Bones Hyland was a vital spark off the bench. He paced Denver’s reserves with 23 points and played so well he even closed the game in crunch time. Hyland knocked in four 3-pointers to break Jamal Murray’s single-season rookie record of 116, but a silly and-1 foul late on Mikal Bridges compounded Denver’s errors.
The Suns shot 60% and 48% from 3-point range. The Nuggets shot 59%, but their mistakes were far more costly.
Whatever adjustments both teams made at halftime didn’t work. Each respective offense scored at will. Whether it was longtime friends Monte Morris and Paul trading 3-pointers, or Deandre Ayton and Aaron Gordon trading off alley-oops, both offenses simmered.
The tension – between Paul and Jeff Green – did, too. Both veterans jawed at each other several minutes into the quarter, perhaps instigated by Paul’s ever-present antics. Green drew a technical foul that may have spurred Denver’s ensuing aggression. Gordon bullied his way deep into Phoenix’s paint and attacked the rim with aggression. Morris fed Gordon perfectly off a baseline cut for a jam, but Booker wouldn’t stop his parade to the bucket, or the free-throw line.
Hyland buried a buzzer-beater to end the third, then talked his trash within earshot of Paul. The basket gave the Nuggets a 106-104 lead entering the fourth.
Several hours before the game, news dropped that Paul would be available after missing the last 15 games due to a thumb fracture.
“It’s kind of scary,” Malone said. “I’ve gotten the chance to coach Chris, know him. Arguably the greatest point guard of all-time. What’s really interesting is that they went 11-4 without him. They’ve won six in a row, seven-of-eight. That speaks to the quality of their depth, their team, their talent, and the job that (coach) Monty Williams does.
“I knew he was close to coming back, and I was just hoping it wouldn’t be tonight.”
Though Paul orchestrated with seven first-half assists, it was Booker who lit the Nuggets up. He drained 24 points on only 11 shots, finishing and exposing Denver’s defense from all three levels despite numerous coverages.
Frankly, both teams took defense as a suggestion in the first half, as Denver took a thin 68-66 lead into the break. That it was that close, despite the eight 3-pointers Denver hit in the second quarter, spoke to the porous defense being played on both ends.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism