Phoenix Suns 114, Denver Nuggets 103 -- Dueling Rope-a-Dopes

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It’s official. The Suns are the most entertaining team in the NBA. Though the season is still young, the Suns are already old pros at keeping the drama night in and night out. Their 114-103 victory over the visiting Denver Nuggets is just the latest example of how much fun the Suns are to watch. Phoenix can dunk, shoot, and run with the best of them, and whether they are succeeding or failing, it’s hard to take your eyes off this team.

Rope-a-Dope

For all you sports heathens out there who don’t know what the Rope-a-Dope is, it’s a boxing strategy made famous by Muhammad Ali. Essentially, it involves backing up to the ropes and letting your opponent hit you repeatedly. The goal is to let the ropes take the punishment while your opponent tires himself out. Once he’s exhausted, you come alive like Rocky Balboa and clean his clock. The Nuggets and new head coach Brian Shaw pulled an incredible Rope-a-Dope on the Suns in this game.

In the second quarter, Phoenix was leading by eight points when Denver suddenly went ice cold. The Nuggets went the last seven and half minutes of the first half without a single field goal. The Suns poured it on, running up and down the floor at lightning speed, trying to put Denver away for good. They kept the crowd on their feet and grew the lead to 17 points by the end of the half. The Nuggets looked finished, and the Suns looked like they felt a victory was already assured.

But Coach Hornacek made a critical error. He played Bledsoe 20 minutes in the first half because he didn’t trust Ish Smith to contain Ty Lawson. When the Suns came out in the third quarter, Bledsoe was visibly exhausted. He gave the ball up on offense just after crossing half court on nearly every possession and seemed content to stand out on the wing while the Suns committed six turnovers and shot a pathetic 2-of-13 from the field. Defensively, Bledsoe was hopeless. Lawson scorched him for 21 points on 7-of-8 shooting in the third quarter alone. Bledsoe constantly lost Lawson when he moved without the ball. Eric was lazy in fighting over screens in pick and roll situation. All in all, he was hurting the team more than he was helping it. Over the first 10 minutes of the third, the Nuggets turned a 17 point deficit into an 11 point lead en route to a 40-20 third quarter.

But the Suns refused to go down without a fight. They reeled off an 8-0 run of their own to cut the lead to three heading into the fourth. In the final frame, the roles were totally reversed. Lawson was too exhausted to contribute, and Bledsoe was too much to handle. All of Lawson’s shots were short, and his only two points came after the Suns had retaken a double-digit lead. Bledsoe, on the flip side, triumphantly rebounded from his abysmal performance in the third. He scored nine points include a game-sealing three as the shot clock expired that put Phoenix up nine with one minute left to play. It was a truly gutty performance.

It has been a long time since the city of Phoenix has had a basketball team capable of winning this type of game. Most Suns’ teams of the past would have given up when their 18-point lead withered away. But this iteration of the Suns is young and hungry. The rest of the league will take notice soon.

Can the Suns’ defense get back on track after the hiccup against the Spurs?

The short answer is no. The Suns were content to run all night long and try to outscore the Nuggets. Denver finished the night shooting 45% from the field, but that figure doesn’t really tell the story. As I mentioned before the Nuggets were ice cold in the second and fourth quarters, where they shot 26% and 39 % respectively. When they took the lead in the third they shot a red hot 59% from the field. Trust me when I say that the Suns played the same lackadaisical D the entire game, the Nuggets were really only able to take advantage of it in the third. The only defensive adjustment Phoenix made was running a second defender at Lawson to get the ball out of his hands. Denver’s rotation pretty much guaranteed that there would be at least one offensive liability on the court at all times. Why Hornacek waited to employ this double-team strategy until the end of the third quarter is beyond me.

Which team will have the advantage from downtown?

The Suns won the battle from downtown, but only barely. Phoenix shot 9-of-20, while Denver hit 8-of-22. Denver did a great job penetrating, kicking, and zipping the ball around the perimeter to the open man. Most of their attempts were wide open. They just didn’t hit the shots the way they have been thus far this year. Between the clutch threes the Morris twins hit and all of Gerald Green’s breakaway dunks there must have been at least five plays in this game which swung the momentum and made the crowd jump to their feet.

Welcome to the Thunderdome: Which point guard tag team will come out on top?

Lawson certainly won the battle, but I think the Suns’ duo won the war. Both pairs played 48 minutes, but the Phoenix split was 36 to 12 Bledsoe to Smith where as Ty Lawson was forced to play all but seven minutes of the game. Lawson, with his 29 points and 4 assists, had the more impressive stat line for sure, but Bledsoe was there when his team needed him most in the final quarter and was no slouch himself in the stats department (17 points and 9 assists.) Ish Smith was pretty much powerless to stop Lawson defensively, but he was key to the Suns 8-0 run to end the third that definitely swung the momentum and helped the Suns find victory.

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