In deciding to rest Steve Nash and Grant Hill, head coach Alvin Gentry decided to pick his battles. This one, just maybe, he thought the Phoenix Suns could get away with and for decent enough reasons.
The Suns (12-17) found themselves in the paint quite a bit against the Denver Nuggets (17-12). With Nash and Hill sitting out the second game of a back-to-back-to-back, and the Nuggets without the frontline of Danilo Gallinari, Nene and Timofey Mozgov, no doubt that good things could happen for the Suns, even if they were missing two starters.
Not so much.
The opportunities to win the inside battle were there — the Suns just couldn’t get the shots to fall.
Denver took advantage of the Suns’ atrocious 33.3 percent shooting night and 21 turnovers, cruising to a 109-92 victory in the Pepsi Center on Tuesday.
The Nuggets scored the first 10 points of the game and led by as many as 16 in the first half, and though Phoenix finally brought it even at 62 early in the third quarter behind a surge from Michael Redd, who had 20 points by the end of the night, any hope for a Suns road win was quickly extinguished.
Trading baskets after the poor start and through the second quarter, Phoenix’s one run to tie the game was short-lived. Denver finished the last 8:47 of the third on a 24-8 run and never looked back as Arron Afflalo’s 20 points and Ty Lawson’s 17 led the way for the Nuggets.
Phoenix did its job in controlling the boards, earning 18 offensive rebounds to the Nuggets’ 10, but there were some chilling numbers: Through three quarters, when the Nuggets led 86-70, the Suns shot 34.6 percent to Denver’s 56.1 percent, and that was due to ineffectiveness in the paint.
Chris Andersen, who has been hard-pressed to get off the bench in recent games, was a large reason for the suffocating defense at the rim for the Nuggets, scoring 16 and blocking six shots on the night. He, center Kosta Koufos, who also had five steals, and rookie Kenneth Faried combined for 10 blocks.
Centers Marcin Gortat and Robin Lopez combined for 4-for-20 shooting as Denver cleverly packed deep into the paint, giving the Phoenix centers out-of-rhythm shots from 10-to-15 feet out, most of which they missed.
How many shots the Denver big men altered perhaps could be reflected in the following numbers: Denver scored 54 points in the paint to the Suns’ 24, and both teams took 48 attempts in the paint for the game. The difference? The Suns connected on only 12 of those compared to the Nuggets’ 27.
Equally as hurtful for Phoenix were the turnovers.
The Suns finished with 16 giveaways after three quarters to the Nuggets’ 15, but Denver used its speed to score 24 points off the mishaps to the Suns’ 11, many of which came off of fastbreak opportunities.
The few positives for Phoenix were Redd and rookie Markieff Morris’ night of 21 points (a career hight), six rebounds, four steals and two blocks.
Without Nash, the starting unit struggled with replacement Ronnie Price, who had six assists but five turnovers. Jared Dudley scored only six in 27 minutes and Gortat struggled to finish in the paint, closing the game with 10 points and 14 rebounds. At -12 and -17 in +/-, respectively, Dudley and Gortat had the worst +/- numbers for the Suns.
And with rotation spots opened up thanks to the veterans sitting out, nobody really took advantage. Shannon Brown, who hadn’t played since the Feb. 4 game against Charlotte, showed poor discipline and timing, shooting 2-of-11 from the floor and had two turnovers in almost 23 minutes. Hakim Warrick finally returned to the floor, but he turned it over twice in just 3:34 of court time.
Outside of Morris’ solid 8-for-16 shooting, the Phoenix bench shot a dismal 6-for-32, or 18.8 percent, from the field.
Here’s the optimist’s outlook.
Missing Nash meant missing an offensive rhythm, and in that sense, seemingly open looks were out of the timing of the offense and ended up off-target. Atlanta is on deck tomorrow night in Phoenix, and though there’s little turnaround time, the Suns will have two fresh bodies return to their proper roles in the starting lineup.