Nuggets burgeoning rivalry with Suns boiled over on Thursday night

Mar 24, 2022; Denver, Colorado, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) drives to the net against Denver Nuggets forward Jeff Green (32) and forward Aaron Gordon (50) in the second quarter at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

As the final moments ticked off the clock and the Denver Nuggets fell at home to the Phoenix Suns in an intense battle between previous playoff opponents, Jeff Green took off towards the hallway through the tunnel leading to the locker rooms.

Each locker room is separated by about 40 feet of hallway and a set of double doors. As Green turned the corner and neared the Nuggets locker room, the first of the two, he did not slow down and walked straight through those double doors without hesitation and continued towards the visiting locker room where the Suns team was located.

As the rest of the Nuggets players and staffers who were walking with Green realized his intentions, they held him back and kept the situation from escalating according to three sources familiar with the interaction. Ultimately, only words were traded; not any type of physical altercation.

“A lot of words are being spoken and some people take offense to what is being said and; obviously, they swept us last year in the playoffs,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone explained when asked about emotions running high against Phoenix.

The intensity was palpable. Not only did Green feel that Chris Paul pulled a cheap trick on him by stopping in front of Green while he was running up the court in transition, but the Nuggets already harbored animosity towards the Suns, who beat them in four games in the playoffs last season.

All night long that intensity was felt by everyone on the court.

“This is a team we have had a lot of close contests with and I think there is definitely some animosity, but that is what this time of year should be about,” Malone said after the game when asked if there was a heightened intensity to their matchup.

“I am all for it. This time of year, it should be every possession matters, every quarter matters, every game matters, and with that comes physicality, aggression and some people may not like that or be comfortable with that.”

There were multiple instances of both the Nuggets and Suns players getting chippy with one another.

DeMarcus Cousins took a shot to the head from Bismack Biyombo and nearly whipped the basketball at Biyombo at close range as retaliation. Cousins was so clearly angry that rookie guard Bones Hyland purposely fouled just so he could take a second to calm down the Nuggets backup center. All night long Jae Crowder was talking trash and physically doing what he could to unhinge the Nuggets players. Hyland was spouting off after hitting a 3-pointer in front of the Suns bench. Jeff Green received a technical foul and had to be separated from Paul at one point after Paul slowed up in transition while directly in front of Green to slow Denver’s transition opportunity. There were numerous instances of both teams carrying more emotion and fervor for this matchup than almost any other game this season.

“I feel that all the way,” Hyland said. “Just from all of the animosity from the first man on the team to the last man on the team, it is a lot of animosity, a lot of competitiveness, a lot of talk, and a lot of trash talking, but that is what the game is.

“That is part of the joy of the game. It is competitive.”

Malone also echoed Hyland’s adoration of hyper-competitive basketball when, during his postgame interview, he said, “I think it’s great; You know me, I love it.”

Despite all of the energy and tension on the floor and in the hallway after the game, there is still a level of respect the Nuggets have for the Suns. The Nuggets know very well just how incredibly talented and versatile that group is and that understanding also manifests in admiration.

“You have to tip your cap,” Malone said to begin his press conference after the loss. “Phoenix is a really good team. There is a reason they have 60 wins and the best record in the NBA. They are a top-two offense and top-three defense.”

The Suns managed to shoot an absurd 60.5% from the floor and 48.1% from 3-point range over the course of the game while getting to the free throw line a whopping 29 times on their way to 140 points in total. They were led by Devin Booker, who finished with 49 points on just 25 shots thanks to his 15 made free throws, but to give Booker the lion’s share of the credit would be reductive despite also dishing out 10 assists.

Mikal Bridges had 22 points on 8 of the 9 shooting and three made 3-pointers. Chris Paul, in his first game back, had 17 points and 13 assists. Crowder and Ayton both scored in double digits as well on over 50% shooting. Overall, every member of the Suns starting lineup scored at least 12 points on no worse than 50% shooting. That was in addition to their bench unit piling on another 24 points on 10-20 shooting. No on in a Suns uniform had a bad night against the Nuggets.

“To beat that team, you have to play almost perfect basketball,” Malone said about the Suns, who have the best odds to win the NBA title at +300 according to FanDuel Sportsbook.

For Malone, he felt the Nuggets lost because of two reasons; turnovers and undisciplined fouling.

“The turnovers — 17 for 30 points — against the best team in the NBA; you cant beat yourself and them in the same night. It is just impossible,” Malone explained. “In the fourth quarter, (the Nuggets had) six turnovers for 12 points. Each possession matters, man.”

The other area that really hurt us tonight; we were so undisciplined with our fouling,” Malone said. “We fouled a jump shooter 10 times tonight for 17 free throws.”

Now, the Nuggets will need to take a step back from the chaos of Thursday night and spend time figuring out how to solve the problems plaguing their productivity and that will begin with a film session.

“Failure is a great teacher if you’re willing to learn from it,” Malone said. “Tonight, the turnovers and the fouling, are the two things that stick out to me before watching film that did not allow us to get this win.

“We have to find ways, as we come down the stretch with eight games to go, to just be smarter, more disciplined and more focused for as close to 48 minutes as possible.”

Denver will have a chance to get back on track and salvage their four-game home stand when they take on the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday night. The Thunder have nothing to play for other than better odds in the lottery, but that won’t matter if the Nuggets do not take the game seriously. Denver is 1-2 against Oklahoma City this season and are posting a horrible -6.8 net rating against them.

Denver will have to show up with urgency and focus if they way to secure their second win over this four-game homestand.

“We have (the Thunder) coming in here to close out this four-game home stand,” Malone said. “They came in here and beat us last time; badly. So hopefully we can find a way to close out this homestand 2-2 and get ready to go out on the road.”

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