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From Deandre Ayton to Torrey Craig, Suns defense flexes to beat Nuggets

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) shoots as Phoenix Suns forward Jae Crowder (99) defends during the first half of Game 2 of an NBA basketball second-round playoff series, Wednesday, June 9, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX — Denver Nuggets head coach Mike Malone wondered to reporters if he’d be able to pick five players who even tried — yes, tried — on Wednesday.

His Phoenix counterpart, Monty Williams, meanwhile wondered after the Suns’ Game 2 win if he’d just seen his team’s best defensive half of the season.

That is questionable considering his own players thought about whether they left too many shooters open to begin a 123-98 victory against the Nuggets.

That nitpicking you might register as “not getting happy on the farm,” to use Williams’ words.

What couldn’t be debated is that Phoenix went ahead 2-0 in the Western Conference Semifinals by being the better team in terms of sheer effort.

Phoenix was getting inside Denver players’ jerseys, taking away the Nuggets’ airspace, running at shooters and hanging with NBA MVP Nikola Jokic the best they could.

“We were just relentless with our effort, our coverage, our communications,” Williams said. “Just thought our defense carried us the whole night.”

The defense did, however, make for an unappealing offensive showing of a first half that saw neither team shoot better than 41%.

But a few plays stuck out.

In the first minute of the second quarter, Phoenix’s Cam Johnson’s layup attempt was swallowed up by a Paul Millsap block. The Denver big man took the ball the other way but was caught from behind by Johnson, who popped the ball out from Millsap’s dribble on the other side of halfcourt.

The turnover by Denver led to a Dario Saric dunk.

Minutes later, there was Suns forward Torrey Craig crashing the glass only to miss a tip-in. He sprinted the other way, chasing the pushing Monte Morris. Morris pulled up at the free throw line only for Craig to block his shot from behind.

That play turned into a Saric three-pointer and gave Phoenix its first double-digit lead, 35-25, with 8:34 to play before halftime.

What didn’t stick out for the Suns was any one individual player slacking.

Jokic-stopper Deandre Ayton picked up two first-quarter fouls, an ominous sign the day after the Nuggets center was officially named the first MVP-winning center since 2000. It forced Williams to turn to Saric as Jokic’s primary defender.

Denver got a few layups as the Suns sent double-teams, but as Phoenix pulled away from that strategy, Saric held his own.

Ayton returned in the second quarter and from there remained in his regular rotation pattern. He didn’t record another personal foul for the game as Jokic closed with 24 points and six assists on 9-of-17 shooting.

Williams called it a “growth moment” for Ayton, the third-year pro and 2018 first overall pick.

“Can’t ask for more from somebody like him,” point guard Chris Paul said of the center. “He guards, he runs, he rebounds, he does everything. He’s literally been our MVP of the postseason so far.”

Paul even said Ayton got on his own teammates for his picking up of the early fouls.

“I think the best part of it was D.A. got on our (expletive). He was mad. He was mad at us,” Paul said. “And I loved it — rightfully so. We got to protect him, we got to help him.”

The defensive effort only turned up for Phoenix after halftime, when the Suns held a 52-42 lead.

Through the three quarters in which the Suns dominated with their starting crew, the Nuggets hit just 37% of their buckets and went 9-of-32 (28%) from three.

And it wasn’t just effort stuff on Phoenix’s end.

The Suns managed to decently weave through traffic created by Denver to free up Jokic, and the big man did most of his damage hitting contested hooks or jumpers over Ayton.

Meanwhile, the Booker-Paul backcourt shut down the Nuggets’ three primary guards — Facundo Campazzo, Austin Rivers and Morris — who combined for a whole 12 points on 4-of-19 shooting.

Booker led the team with 18 points, and while the Suns might be saving his legs by stashing him on Campazzo for stretches, he also put together a sneaky strong defensive effort.

“I think our versatility, our passion, our holding each other accountable — we just want to defend,” Booker said. “We know if we defend, we can get out in transition and everything will happen how it’s supposed to on the offensive end.”

The 11 Denver turnovers turned into 12 points for the Suns, who got 14 fastbreak points to just eight for the short-staffed and less swift afoot Nuggets.

“Across the board, we got contributions from everyone, but it was just the effort and will that I saw out there on the floor tonight, and that travels,” Williams said. “And we’re going to need that when we got to play against these guys in a couple of days.”


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