Phoenix Suns: Time to ride momentum

The Phoenix Suns are 8-5 entering a stretch of four consecutive home games, beginning Friday night against the 7-7 Denver Nuggets.

The back-to-back monster efforts from Deandre Ayton have the Suns faithful eager for more. And that’s really what’s driving Ayton’s success right now: effort.

The Phoenix Suns’ next four games are  a great opportunity to ramp up their status as legit playoff contenders.

The back-to-back matchups with the Nuggets are followed by games against the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Golden State Warriors. Here’s a quick breakdown of what lies ahead:

Denver Nuggets, Nikola Jokic (Photo by Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)

Denver Nuggets

First up, a pair of home games against Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and the Western Conference runners-up.

In the teams’ only meeting this season, with the Suns up 102-100, Chris Paul buried a step-back midrange jumper (see top photo on this piece) off a drive to lock down the win.

Murray scored 31 points on 11-22 shooting, and Jokic had 17 and 11, but Ayton’s 22/11 game, coupled with Booker’s 22 points helped Phoenix to its fifth victory in six tries to start this season.

A major focus on Friday is Murray’s elbow. He has been fighting through the minor injury lately and scored only five points on 2-for-10 shooting in 21 minutes during a victory over the Thunder on Tuesday night.

If Murray is a full-go, he’ll be the usual handful. The ascendant star (he put 40 on the Clippers in Game 7 of their Western Conference semifinal series last season) is a matchup nightmare for anyone and the specter of Devin Booker foul trouble is a real concern for the Suns.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Fans of the Phoenix Suns in the Valley are also likely familiar with Arizona State hoops’ one-and-done Luguentz Dort, who has continued to build on his rare set of skills this season.

Dort has shackled several NBA starters this season for the 6-7 Thunder, most recently applying the brakes to Jamal Murray in a 119-101 loss to Denver.

Dort, a 21-year-old undrafted free agent in his second NBA season, ranks among the league’s top 60 in Defensive Box Score Plus/Minus.

It’s more than just defense, though, as Dort carried averages of 13.4 points and 3.9 rebounds per game into Friday’s games. After hitting less than 30 percent of his 3s last season, Dort had connected on 31 of 71, almost 44 percent, and sits second on the Thunder in scoring.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scores 21 points per game and is worthy of an occasional double team, and 20-year-old power forward Darius Bazley (7.2 rebounds per game) can be a problem on the glass.

All that said, this is a game Phoenix should win. Especially if OKC big guy Al Horford misses another matchup (he was listed as “out” for Friday’s game vs. the Clippers due to personal reasons, but has plenty of time before the Suns and Thunder meet Jan. 27).

Golden State Warriors

There’s no doubt the Phoenix Suns’ Jan. 28 opponent, the Warriors, are an entertaining team with Steph Curry leading the party.

Curry helped upset the Lakers this week, but the Warriors were throttled at home by the New York Knicks on Thursday night. You never know what kind of performance you’ll see from this group.

Phoenix and Golden State had been scheduled to meet Jan. 15, but that game was one of three Suns contests postponed because of health and safety protocols related to coronavirus.

The Suns-specific focus will be Deandre Ayton and James Wiseman, the improving rookie 7-footer picked second overall in the 2020 draft.

Wiseman has been on the receiving end of multiple lobs this season and, though he’s pulling down only six rebounds per game, he’s a versatile asset in Golden State’s toolbox.

Curry scores 28.2 per game, and Draymond Green provides significant playmaking help with almost seven assists per game.

At the very least, this matchup to close the four-game homestand will be fun to watch.