PHOENIX — Well, they didn’t leave it to the fourth quarter this time.
After a handful of victories in a now 12-game winning streak came courtesy of closing up shop in clutch time, the Phoenix Suns used a 48-point first quarter to cruise into control and past the Denver Nuggets 126-97 on Sunday.
The Suns led 48-28 through one quarter, assisting 16 of their 17 baskets and shooting 17-of-22 (77.3%) from the field. The 48 points are the second-most in franchise history for a first quarter, only topped by 50 in the 1990 double-take of a box score, a 173-143 regulation final for Phoenix against … the Nuggets.
“The way we moved the ball … That kind of shooting and passing and recognizing what they were doing in their coverages was good to see,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said.
The shorthanded Nuggets, missing Nikola Jokic (wrist), Michael Porter Jr. (back) and Jamal Murray (knee), started both JaMychal and Jeff Green as their bigs. With a size advantage for Deandre Ayton, Phoenix utilized him often and early.
“He’s so good at putting pressure on the rim that he creates a lot of 3s for us, he creates a lot of assists … DA was really solid tonight,” Williams said.
Ayton scored 18 of his 21 points in the first half on 8-of-9 shooting.
A few of those looks came for Ayton on the short roll, which is basketball lingo for him receiving the ball around the free throw line or higher after a ball screen and then becoming the defacto playmaker of the possession from there.
We’ve seen for years how the Golden State Warriors use Draymond Green like that to counter traps on Stephen Curry. Most of the time the short roll is attacking a rotating defender near the basket as the “low man” and that’s someone the big can either finish through or make a pass out of to an open teammate.
That’s where Ayton becoming a more aggressive dribbler would really help.
Ayton going Euro-step on the pick-and-roll is fun pic.twitter.com/YPXvqIB6ok
— Matt Petersen (@TheMattPetersen) November 22, 2021
And he’s always been a good enough passer to make the right read.
Suns’ basic offense just shredding Denver’s tissue-paper defense in this first quarter pic.twitter.com/kPocjELAoN
— Matt Petersen (@TheMattPetersen) November 22, 2021
Williams said Suns assistant coach Mark Bryant works with the bigs on how not to “dive blindly” and roll at a certain pace to avoid a poor outcome. Ayton said he’s looking at that low man under the hoop, judging where he is so he can make a decision from there.
“What we practice mainly is how do I execute coming out of that pick-and-roll,” Ayton said. “A lot of dudes can set a charge or the low man can be up early.”
It’s a big-time weapon for Phoenix if Ayton can be consistent with it.
While the Suns let up a bit in the middle quarters, the closest Denver got was within nine points after a sluggish beginning to the third quarter. Williams called a timeout at that point, and his team responded with a 17-4 run in the remaining 6:12 of the quarter to lead by 22.
“I just didn’t think we came out with the urgency we needed … Then our guys responded, came out of that particular timeout and defensively we played much better but the ball was moving a bit more too,” Williams said. “We had to let the offense breathe a little bit.”
At the tail end of it, Denver’s Aaron Gordon got a technical foul before quickly being granted his second and ejected.
Gordon appeared to be walking away from the scene of the crime for his first T near the Suns’ bench before turning around to say something the bench’s way and coming back. Jae Crowder, who got into his own kerfuffle with Gordon in the playoffs, made his way toward that space and looked like the recipient of a few of Gordon’s words.
The officials threw out Gordon before the two could even get close to each other.
Crowder appeared to enjoy his handy work.
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) November 22, 2021
That third quarter was about all Denver had left without its three best players, and once Gordon was gone, that made it four and effectively sealed the game’s fate. The Nuggets produced only 37 points in the second half.
The beauty of a basketball fixture like this that gets out of hand and involves ridiculous offensive stretches is that it can allow some players in a funk to snap out of it.
Cam Johnson was already on his way out of his poor shooting spell to open the year, and he put up a career-high 22 points in 23 minutes to emphatically exit that phase.
“Just being aggressive,” Johnson said of what was working. “A lot of it is the unselfishness we play with, I was the beneficiary of some open looks.”
He’s now reached double figures in four of his last six games and has converted on 17 three-pointers in his previous eight appearances.
Phoenix managed 126 points despite only 11 triples and a 30.6% mark from deep. It got 17 assists and one turnover combined out of Chris Paul (10 assists, zero turnovers) and Devin Booker (seven assists, one turnover). Booker added 17 points while Crowder contributed 15.
With a game in San Antonio up next on Monday, it’s the Suns’ second straight back-to-back where a blowout in the first go allowed Williams to limit minutes. Paul only clocked 24 and Mikal Bridges’ 33 made him the lone Phoenix player to crack 30.
“It was good to get out and get this game kinda over a little bit … Just getting rested up,” Booker said. “It’s a long flight, we lose an hour and we have a well-rested team waiting on us. It’s gonna be a dog fight that we’re looking forward to.”