Suns host Blazers in matchup of hurting teams

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Just as Phoenix prepared to welcome starting center Deandre Ayton back this week, Devin Booker landed on the injury report, adding to an all-around bad day in Mexico City on Saturday.

Portland knows the feeling.

Two teams that are in a bit of a funk will meet in Phoenix on Monday, the first of four meetings for the Western Conference rivals, who each have playoff aspirations.

Phoenix has lost two in a row and seven of its last 10 after moving game one over .500 with a victory in Minnesota on Nov. 23. The Suns have lost consecutive games to sub.-500 teams Memphis and San Antonio, the most recent a 121-119 loss to the Spurs in overtime in Mexico City.

Ricky Rubio had 25 points and 13 assists for the Suns, who led by two points with 31 seconds remaining but gave up two field goals, committed a turnover and failed to box out on a Spurs’ missed free throw that led to Patty Mills’ winning jumper with 1.7 seconds remaining.

“We’re fighting for something that hasn’t been accomplished in a long time in Phoenix,” said Rubio, whose 3-pointer had put the Suns in front.

“The last two games, it felt like we lost the game. With due respect to San Antonio and Memphis, they played hard, but I think we made mistakes we shouldn’t have. It would have put us in better position to win those kind of games.

“Down the road, an 82-game schedule in a tight Western Conference, it’s going to hurt. It is one of those that is painful, because know that if we control what we have to control, that wouldn’t happen.”

Booker, averaging 25.0 points and 6.4 assists a game, missed the San Antonio game with a right forearm contusion. His availability for the Portland game is unknown, and Ayton is expected return against the Clippers on Los Angeles.

Booker suffered a blow to his right forearm in a 115-109 loss at Houston on Dec. 7 and played through it for two games before behind held out Saturday.

“It got to the point where we thought it smart to let it heal and not pound on it,” coach Monty Williams told the Suns’ radio network. “You could watch him play and see he was in some pain. There were a couple of times I wanted to take him out but couldn’t.”

The Trail Blazers have had difficulty keeping up with the Western Conference toughs recently. They suffered a 23-point loss to the Lakers and a 12-point loss to Oklahoma before closing out a four-game homestead with 28-point victory over New York last Tuesday. They lost at Denver 114-99 on Thursday.

“Trying to figure out some consistency on the defensive end,” said Carmelo Anthony, who was in Arizona in time to see Georgia prized freshman Anthony Edwards play at Arizona State on Saturday night.

“We show spurts of it, and there are spurts that we don’t. Sometimes we are not as aggressive as we should be. Sometimes we are too relaxed.”

Seven-foot center Hassan Whiteside had a career-high 33 points to go with 11 rebounds. Damian Lillard’s 3-pointer late in the third quarter cut the deficit to one point before Denver scored the final 10 points of the period. Whiteside could not explain the stall.

“I don’t know. I went to the bathroom,” said Whiteside, who has 17 double-doubles this season, including one of 15 rebounds and 10 blocked shots. “I know it’s crazy to say. We were down three. I came back, we were down 12.”

Nominal starting center Jusuf Nurkic, who averaged 15.6 points and 10.4 rebounds last season, appears to be nearing a return from a broken leg suffered in March. He ran the steps at Denver’s Pepsi Center during the team shoot-around Thursday.

“I feel hungry,” Nurkic told reporters after an on-court workout on Phoenix on Saturday. “I feel every day hunger more. I lost some weight, and feel great. More explosive. More quick. When the (return) comes, I’m going to be the double beast.”

–Field Level Media

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