Nuggets swat Suns to seize resounding opening-night victory

PHOENIX – Aaron Gordon soared like gravity was optional, and the Nuggets did something they failed to do last postseason.

On opening night, in front of a rowdy Phoenix crowd, the Nuggets swatted the Suns. ’s 110-98 win erased some of the pain of last year’s 4-0 sweep, and set the tone for a season filled with expectations.

When Gordon erased Devin Booker’s layup attempt with 3:49 left in the fourth quarter, Denver’s bench authored an all-time reaction. As the ball flew well over their heads, the Nuggets’ bench mob put their hands to their faces to see how far it had traveled.

Nikola Jokic, Michael Porter Jr. and Gordon did everything they could to exorcise last season’s demons. Jokic paced the team with 27 points and 13 rebounds, while Porter added 15 points and six rebounds. His five assists tied a career-high. Will Barton looked spry, offering 20 points, six rebounds and five assists of his own.

It was an all-encompassing win and one that silenced what should’ve been an electric crowd. The Nuggets’ home opener comes Friday against San Antonio.

The Nuggets left behind whatever plagued them in the first half. Behind a torrent of 3-pointers, including three from Monte Morris, the Nuggets bolted out to a 23-7 run to stretch their lead to nine with 4:36 left in the third. Their defense was crisp, while their offense played unselfishly.

There was no better example than Porter, whose patience and vision was apparent following his offseason work. Porter found Gordon for a rim-rattling reverse dunk, then came down several possessions later and buried a poised 3-pointer from the top of the arc. The second unit survived with help from both Porter and Barton, who were staggered to add pop to the reserve lineup.

The ploy worked, with the Nuggets up 85-82 entering the fourth.

After what happened in last year’s second round, Nuggets coach Michael Malone didn’t need a graduate degree to analyze what his defense was up against.

“Once we’re back (on defense), it’s pick-and-roll,” Malone said before the game. “We all understand, you go back to last season watching them in their pick-and-roll. Chris Paul is arguably the greatest point guard of all time.”

After giving Booker his due, Malone settled on the surplus of shooters that most concerned him.

“The Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowders, DeAndre Aytons, guys off the bench like Cam Payne, Cam Johnson,” Malone said. “They have a ton of shooting. … What no one talks about in the playoff series was, without Jamal, we had a hard time scoring against them. … That put so much pressure on our defense every time down.”

Not even a late 8-0 run to close the second quarter could mask how ugly stretches of the first half had gone for Denver. Turnovers, fouls and disjointed possessions left the Nuggets looking at a 58-51 deficit at the break. On at least one possession, Malone opted not to even watch the ensuing fastbreak, turning his back on the play. The Suns hung 38 in the quarter alone.

The contrast between Phoenix’s free-flowing, pass-happy offense and Denver’s isolation offense was stark. Eleven first-half turnovers, including three each from Jokic and Gordon, stunted momentum after a quality first quarter.

Jokic paced the Nuggets with 15 first-half points, followed by 11 from Barton. After the starters authored a promising first quarter, Denver’s second unit struggled mightily to string any points together.

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