EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns blow doors off Nuggets in 2nd half, take 1-0 series lead at home

Jun 7, 2021, 11:33 PM | Updated: Jun 8, 2021, 1:20 am
The Phoenix Suns celebrate during the second half of Game 1 of an NBA basketball second-round playo...

The Phoenix Suns celebrate during the second half of Game 1 of an NBA basketball second-round playoff series against the Denver Nuggets, Monday, June 7, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

(AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX — The sign of a great basketball team is being able to deliver a haymaker in the second half to put the game away.

This season, the Phoenix Suns have been more about controlling games and slowly squeezing the life out of their opponent, but it was a knockout shot on Monday in a Game 1 122-105 win over the Denver Nuggets.

After Denver led 72-63 with 7:34 left in the third quarter, the Suns went on a 16-0 run over 3:19. The homecourt advantage certainly kicked in, as the crowd roars kept reaching a new peak until Torrey Craig’s lob dunk finish at 8:36 remaining put Phoenix up 18. Combine those two chunks of the game and you’ve got a 39-12 tidal wave in 10:29 that had Denver all out of sorts, rightfully so.

Chris Paul was still struggling to shoot consistently with his injured right shoulder but still had enough in him to score 10 points and assist another bucket in the opening three minutes of the fourth quarter before that Craig slam that blew the roof off the building.

“Just playing with pace,” Paul said of what worked during that run. “They got a nice little lead on us there in the third quarter but with our team and with the crowd — this crowd is crazy. It’s crazy to have the fans in there. The energy, there’s nothing like it.

“I told the guys, this is why we fought so hard during the regular season to get homecourt advantage and I think we truly have that with our fanbase here.”

The Nuggets, as anticipated, sent aggressive coverages toward the Suns’ backcourt. The overplay essentially challenges Paul and Devin Booker to make the right play, and Phoenix’s ball and player movement to be moving as one in unison.

If you’ve watched the Suns at all under head coach Monty Williams either this year or last, you know that’s the identity he’s instilled in the team and it’s something they’re great at.

That reflected in the Suns’ ability to create three-pointers in the corner.

The most efficient shot in today’s game is one the Suns shot 43.7% on in the regular season, the second-best mark in the league, per Cleaning the Glass. Denver, meanwhile, allowed the fourth-most (10.7% of its total shots allowed) and the Suns attempted the third-most (10.6% of its total shots attempted).

That percentage for the Suns on Monday was 16%. Mikal Bridges (4-for-8 from 3) and Jae Crowder (3-of-9) took 11 combined on their own and made five.

“They do a really good job of taking away the paint. We want to touch the paint when we have the ball but sometimes that play is outside,” Williams said, wondering out loud if the lane will now open up more after the damage the Suns did from that outside region.

Paul (11 assists) and Booker (eight) had 19 of the Suns’ 30 assists. Booker had three of his five turnovers in the first quarter and all five in the opening half but really started to get a feel for what Denver was doing and killed them in the second half. Phoenix had only 10 turnovers as a team.

“We just try to get off it, move it quick and move the ball faster than the defense can move,” Booker said. “I think we got some good open shots in the second half that opened up the game for us.”

During that run that decided the game, the Suns were, well, running.

“Running. Just running. Competing and running,” Suns center Deandre Ayton said of it.

Booker credited Ayton for helping create space and said there was a possession where he was in a full sprint and looked to his right and saw Ayton pass him.

“That opens up a lot of opportunities for all of us and he deserves the credit for that,” Booker said.

Hearing that back drew a big smile out of Ayton.

“Teams don’t want to see me dunking every time, so what I do is just run, man,” Ayton said. “Run to create offense for my teammates … That’s a thing we always go over. Once that ball is in the air and we get the ball, we’re out. That’s a thing Book and I go over with running,” he said with a laugh.

In the half-court even, the Nuggets were sending the help man to tag Ayton, something Booker shouted out as well. That was the thing the Los Angeles Lakers were less focused on doing, but let the Point God explain the thing about that:

“That’s what I’ve said all season long: We have a team. So if you try and take one of us out or not, we make the right play,” Paul said. “[Shoot,] who you gonna leave open? Mikal is cash. Jae is cash. Cam — I could keep going on and on and that’s the benefit of having a team.”

And while that was a big contribution from Ayton, his biggest, of course, was the job he did defending Nikola Jokic. The MVP frontrunner shot 10-of-23 for 22 points, not attempting a free throw. He also had three assists and four turnovers, which gave him a unique (in a bad way) box score.

Ayton had a ton of success defending Jokic this season and the question was how much of it would translate in the playoffs. Just about all of it did in Game 1. He had 20 points and 10 rebounds.

Perhaps the Nuggets will be kicking themselves for this being a winnable game without Jokic in even decent form, because point guard Facundo Campazzo and forward Aaron Gordon were both excellent on both sides of the ball while it was a relatively tame 21 points each for Booker and Paul.

Campazzo finished with 14 points, four rebounds, six assists and two steals while Gordon added 18 points, four rebounds, two assists and three steals.

Or, the Nuggets will shrug off that they couldn’t win “The Mikal Bridges Game,” with the third-year wing scoring a game-high 23 points after managing to get to only 13 in any game for Round 1.

Paul said Bridges is like his brother because the two can tell each other anything, and after a moment of slight hesitation in the first half for Bridges shooting the ball, Paul got on Bridges to shoot.

He did from that point on.

Craig’s nine points, eight rebounds and two blocks in 17 minutes against his former team felt even bigger than that awesome stat line indicates it was. He did a tremendous job boxing out against the Nuggets’ second unit that has a big size advantage with Paul Millsap and JaMychal Green.

Denver’s backup guard Monte Morris, the team’s third-leading scorer in the first round at 15.3 points per game, was 1-for-10. Morris has been one of the NBA’s best reserve guards for a few seasons now, but the increased scoring role was new for him and he struggled with it against Phoenix.

It has to be an incredibly encouraging opener for the Suns. There are some ways to win Game 1 where that’s not exactly the case, but they beat the Nuggets playing the way they love to.

And they did so on a night where their defense was average at best. Williams said he saw his guys a step off in their communication on switches, where Denver got nearly a half-dozen free baskets in the first half. The Suns tightened that up in the second half and then smoked the Nuggets.

It was not a supernova Booker performance like three of the wins against the Lakers. Just a good ol’ fashioned team win. And the Suns’ capability of getting those is what makes them such a dangerous team and a tough out.

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