Starting Five: Nuggets hold off Suns to finish 2018 on a high note

Phoenix Suns guard De'Anthony Melton (14) guards Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) during the second half at Talking Stick Resort Arena
Dec 29, 2018; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns guard De'Anthony Melton (14) guards Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) during the second half at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets have finished out 2018 on a strong note.

After beating the San Antonio Spurs 102-99 on Friday night, the Nuggets continued their winning ways with a 122-118 road win over the Phoenix Suns on Saturday night — just about 24 hours after Denver’s victory over San Antonio — to secure their 23rd win of the 2018-19 season.

Jamal Murray caught fire once again, Paul Millsap returned from injury, and Denver was white-hot from 3-point distance, but they failed to finish out quarters and allowed Deandre Ayton to put up 24 points in the second quarter as he led the Suns on their attmepted comeback.

With all of that being said, here is the Starting Five from the Nuggets win over the Suns on Saturday night.

The Anchorman returns

After 22 days and eight games, Paul Millsap finally made is long-awaited return to the rotation and he did so about a week earlier than anyone expected. He was originally supposed to be sidelined for 4-to-6 weeks, but made his return just one day after the three week mark.

Even though Millsap did not start in his first game back with Denver, he gave the Nuggets a strong 14 minutes. He was flying around on defense, making life difficult for whoever he was defending, setting great screens, and providing the veteran leadership that was lost when he went down with injury. In Millsap’s 14 minutes, he was able to accumulate six points, one assist, and one block, but in those 14 minutes he was on the floor, Denver outscored the Suns by seven points.

Now, Millsap just needs to get back into game shape and his performance against the Suns in Phoenix was the first step towards that.

Jamal Murray has back-to-back great shooting performances

Jamal Murray is a flat-out lethal scorer and, when he is on fire, there are very few players as exciting and fun to watch. Against the Suns, Murray had one of his best games ever and he did so on a sprained right ankle.

In Phoenix, Murray poured in the second-most points he has ever scored in a single NBA game with 46 points and he did so after scoring 31 points just 24 hours earlier against the San Antonio Spurs. Even more impressive is that he did so on a highly efficient 16-of-24 shooting from the field including a career-high nine made 3-pointers.

Murray needed a weekend exactly like this. In a 48 hour span, Murray scored 77 points, grabbed 12 rebounds, and dished out 11 assists while shooting 55.9 percent from the field and 72.2 percent from 3-point range.

It seems like Murray is breaking out of his shooting slump in a big way.

Denver struggling to close quarters

Denver’s biggest issue of the night was their complete inability to close out quarters against an inferior opponent. It does not matter if it is the second night of a back-to-back, how many injuries Denver is dealing with, or any other excuse; the Nuggets have to close out quarters strong against teams they are better than if they want to keep up their winning ways.

Against the Suns, Denver was outscored 21-10 to end the second quarter, 16-5 to end the third quarter, and 20-11 to end the fourth quarter. Getting outscored by a total of 31 points at the end of three separate quarters is a recipe for disaster and that is why the Nuggets found themselves in a dog fight at the end of the game even though they had led by as many as 25 points earlier in the night.

Denver should have never allowed the Suns — who were also on the second night of a back-to-back — to claw their way back into the game. Denver’s complacency, turnover issues, and lack of offensive rhythm late in quarters nearly led to their demise on Saturday night.

Deandre Ayton’s second quarter was flat-out absurd

Yes, I know this is a website where people come to read about the Nuggets, but having 24 points in a quarter deserves mentioning regardless of who accomplished such a feat.

In the second quarter, Deandre Ayton played all 12 minutes and was an absolute force. He was unstoppable on the offensive glass, was a scoring machine in the paint and there was not a soul in the Talking Stick Arena who had a hope of defending him for those 12 minutes.

In the second quarter, Ayton put up 24 points as he made 12-of-13 shots from the floor. He also added in seven rebounds, but six of those boards game on the offensive glass. 22 of his 24 points came at the rim as well.

Sure, Ayton was gifted many turnovers by the Nuggets which allowed him to make easy shots at the rim, but not everyone can just casually have a 24-point quarter. What a dominating stretch from the first pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

Denver’s 3-point barrage

The big X-factor for the Nuggets in their win over the Suns was their unstoppable 3-point shooting. If it wasn’t for Denver’s scalding hot shooting from beyond the arc, they would have almost assuredly sustained their worst loss of the season at the hands of the Suns.

In Phoenix, Denver managed to drill 18 3-pointers in 35 tries. That equates out to the entire Nuggets team shooting a combined 51.4 percent from deep. By the time the final buzzer had sounded, Denver managed to outscore the Suns by 21 points from the 3-point line, which acted as the great equalizer for the Nuggets. Malik Beasley and Murray combined to make 14-of-20 3-point shots while Juancho Hernangomez also pitched in two big triples.

For most of 2018, Denver has been unable to shoot at a high clip, but it is seeming more and more like many of the Nuggets players are finding their stroke as jump shooters. After Denver’s win over the Suns, they have now climbed up to 13th in 3-point percentage, but Denver is still just 21st in the NBA in total made 3-pointers. Getting back Gary Harris and Will Barton will go a long way towards Denver bouncing back as a 3-point shooting team, but to see Denver still manage to hit big shots from outside the arc is great to see.

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