PHOENIX – Clad in sweats with a black brace around his wrist, Nikola Jokic could do nothing to aid his reeling squad.
Out for the second consecutive game with a right wrist sprain, Jokic watched helplessly as the Suns, the same team that swept the Nuggets from the playoffs last season, picked their defense apart. The 126-97 final Sunday evening gave the Suns their 12th consecutive victory and dealt Denver its fourth consecutive loss.
The Nuggets hadn’t lost four in a row since the 2018-’19 season. Now 9-8, the Nuggets will face Portland on Tuesday to try and snap their losing streak.
“When you give up 48 in the first quarter, get down by 20, by as many as 30 at one point, you expend so much energy trying to get back into the game,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “It was great to see our guys continue to fight, compete and not just to roll over, but you can’t allow a team to come out and play the way they did in that first quarter.”
Though the effort was there for most of the game, the personnel wasn’t. Aside from Jokic, the Nuggets were without Michael Porter Jr. (back), Zeke Nnaji (ankle) and Jamal Murray, who jokingly lobbied in Sunday’s pre-game news conference to return from his ACL tear.
The injury report got longer, as rookie Bones Hyland left Sunday’s game with a right ankle sprain after just two minutes of action.
In the meantime, Phoenix had its full arsenal.
Chris Paul finished with nine points and 10 assists, and center Deandre Ayton had 21 points on 9-of-11 shooting. Without Jokic to protect the paint, the Suns had their way near the rim, finishing with 56 points inside.
Denver’s best offensive threat, Aaron Gordon, got ejected with 15 seconds left in the third quarter after pleading his case following an offensive foul. Gordon’s night ended with 16 points and a team-high 10 rebounds.
Jeff Green added 19 points, and JaMychal Green tallied 14 points and eight rebounds.
“Going into the next game, we had a good talk in the locker room,” JaMychal Green said. “Our heads held high.
“… Fight,” Green continued. “Go out there and play with confidence and know we’re gonna get the win. We’re a great team, we’re a deep team.”
With 6:15 left in the third quarter, the Nuggets finally trimmed the deficit back to single digits. JaMychal Green’s 3-pointer capped a 12-4 that temporarily quieted Phoenix’s crowd. As Suns coach Monty Williams called timeout to stem the momentum, Jokic jumped off the bench to greet Green, who’d been struggling with his outside shot.
The Suns closed the quarter on a 17-4 run, filled with Devin Booker daggers and an alley-oop lob. Denver entered the fourth down 100-78, with the game effectively out of reach.
Outside of maybe Portland, the Nuggets were as familiar with the Suns as perhaps any team in the NBA.
In other words, Malone knew what they were in for.
“You have Chris Paul in pick-and-rolls, who’s just a master,” Malone said. “You have Devin Booker in catch-and-shoot in isolations. You have their 3-point shooting. And then a guy, who I just love to watch – Mikal Bridges. Guy never stops moving. He’s not a good cutter, he’s a great cutter. And then you throw all that on top of the fact that they have the No. 3 defense in the NBA. That’s why they’ve won 11 games in a row.”
Phoenix came as advertised, especially in the first quarter where the Suns hung 48 points in the opening 12 minutes of the game. It was a stunning display of efficiency, talent and depth. The Suns connected on 77% of their first-quarter tries, bolting out to a 20-point lead.