After losing their first two preseason games, the Denver Nuggets got their first win of the preseason in spectacular fashion, winning 107-105 over the Phoenix Suns as Ish Smith hit the game winning basket with nine seconds remaining.

The Nuggets knew they would be without their main crew tonight. Michael Malone let media know pregame that Nikola Jokić (wrist) and Jamal Murray (hamstring) would be sitting out. Joining them were Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Aaron Gordon for rest purposes, leaving Michael Porter Jr. as the only available starter.

Against the Suns, it’s difficult to keep up without being full strength, but the Nuggets did just that. They won this one as Ish Smith was the late game hero, scoring 17 points and dishing seven assists in 25 minutes off the bench. Smith scored or assisted on the final five Nuggets baskets, including two clutch mid-range jumpers to tie the game and ultimately take the lead.

Porter posted nine points on 2-of-11 from the field and struggled overall. Bones Hyland was the standout though, contributing 16 points, six rebounds, and three assists in 20 minutes and leading the Nuggets starters on the floor.

Here are the four big takeaways from Denver’s third preseason game:

Ish Smith takes control

With the game hanging in the balance late, the Nuggets needed someone to organize them and put them in situations to succeed. They also simply needed somebody comfortable putting the ball in the bucket.

Ish Smith did that, twice, generating two mid-range jumpers in isolation to propel the Nuggets to victory.

“I felt confident shooting that mid-range,” Smith admitted. “I know analytically it’s not the prettiest shot, but I don’t care. If you make it, what are they going to say?”

The Nuggets will have games this season when they have to turn the reins over to Ish Smith. Between Jamal Murray’s status recovering from surgery and the pressure Bones Hyland is facing to be great, Ish will have opportunities to make his mark.

And the Nuggets are extremely happy about that.

“He can score, he can get anywhere he wants to go,” Malone commented on Ish’s game. “13-year vet. Terrific mid-range shooter, but also, he’s fun to play with.”

“Ish is just so fast,” said Bruce Brown postgame. “So, you’ve gotta give him space or he’s going to go right by you.”

The Nuggets know they will need the stability that Ish can provide when the second unit starts to waver, and he appears more than ready for the task. His role is still to be determined, but no matter what he does, he will be a pro’s pro.

Bones stepping up

With the starters almost all out, the Nuggets needed a catalyst for offense with what may be one of their most played lineups of the season. Bones stepped up in a big way, responding to the gauntlet the Suns thew down early.

“I thought he fought,” Malone stated. “I thought he showed good poise. I thought he competed. He didn’t just back down. They tried to pick him up and get into his airspace a little bit, but he’s just going to continue getting better and more comfortable with that.”

The Suns backcourt challenged Bones on both ends of the floor. Both Chris Paul and Devin Booker targeted the Nuggets second year player, isolating against him on one end and challenging his handle on the other. Bones responded well, holding up defensively and creating shots as well as anybody on the Nuggets end.

Bones exited early in the third quarter and was being looked at by trainers. He was grabbing at his ankle, and the Nuggets clearly didn’t want to take any chances with him given their other injuries already piling up.

Malone told media that he wasn’t concerned about Bones’ injury status: “I don’t think so. It’s just more sore, and at that point, I didn’t want to get him back in the game.”

The defense steps up too

The emphasis for tonight’s game was almost purely defensive. Malone made that clear in the pregame media session, and the Nuggets mostly delivered according to their coach.

“I think they hit seven threes in that first quarter and made only five the rest of the game,” Malone shared postgame. “A really good chance for us to play against a really good basketball team.”

The Nuggets held the Suns to 46 combined points in the second and third quarters. Led by Bruce Brown and a mostly switching defense, the Nuggets did a good job of limiting valuable shots. Suns starters were on the floor for a long time, playing the entire third quarter. Booker was held to 5-of-17 from the field, and the Suns didn’t have their requisite precision from every spot on the floor.

Credit the Nuggets defense for some of that.

Bruce Brown finding his groove

After two games of mostly operating as a bench floor spacer, the Nuggets knew they needed to get Brown going, and he responded well in this one, posting 12 points, two rebounds, and two assists in 28 minutes. 

“Toughness, IQ, rebounding, defense, improved three-point shooting, versatility on both ends of the floor,” Malone shared in what he values about Brown. “He just won our first Defensive Player of the Game award. I thought his defense on Devin Booker was outstanding.”

Much of Brown’s intrigue with the Nuggets centers around how he can impact lineups with Murray, Porter, and Jokić out there. It was nice to see him find ways to impact the game without those three on the court. He hit multiple three-pointers in the first quarter, had a nice drive on Chris Paul, and played solid defense throughout.

There will be plenty of opportunities for Brown to make his mark this season, especially on the defensive end.

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