EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns steamrolled by Nuggets, Jamal Murray and math in Game 1 loss

Apr 29, 2023, 9:46 PM | Updated: Apr 30, 2023, 9:29 am

Jamal Murray (27) of the Denver Nuggets smiles after drawing a hard foul from Chris Paul (3) of the...

Jamal Murray (27) of the Denver Nuggets smiles after drawing a hard foul from Chris Paul (3) of the Phoenix Suns in transition during the fourth quarter of Denvers 125-107 win at Ball Arena in Denver on Saturday, April 29, 2023. Denver took a 1-0 series lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal matchup. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

(Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

DENVER — The Phoenix Suns are not going to get by on being more talented anymore. That stopped as soon as the ball went in the air for Saturday’s Game 1 of the second round against the Denver Nuggets.

In fact, the Nuggets looked more talented. On top of their terrific bits of individual play, they were far better as a team too and walloped the Suns with a terrific first punch, 125-107.

Phoenix got eviscerated in the math across the first two quarters and it put them in a pit they couldn’t escape. Kevin Durant postgame had the stat sheet in front of him and kept referencing Denver taking 17 more shots and him turning it over seven times for nearly half of Phoenix’s 16.

Thanks largely to going +9 on offensive rebounds and +4 on turnovers, the Nuggets attempted 15 more shots in the first half. In addition, they made seven more 3s and took a dozen more. The Suns’ prolific free-throw shooting in the first round wasn’t carrying over to start, as Denver went +2 there too.

Getting bested that heavily in categories that simply come down to effort and engagement is actually what the Suns used to do to their opponents over the last two-plus years. Even worse is doing it in a series like this one that is so down the middle. Denver was excellent, like a No. 1 seed should be, and the Suns were just on their back foot nearly all night because of it.

“I thought that they were just more physical, played with more force, especially in the second quarter,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said of it. “That’s where we kind of lost some momentum. And the difference in possessions. Turnovers and offensive rebounds just destroyed us tonight.”

That is how you lose a half by 15 when shooting 55%.

“When you look at the stat sheet, they got [101] shots up, we got 84,” Durant said. “They got 37 3s up, we got 23. They made 16, we made seven. It’s a make-or-miss league. We can talk about a lot of different things evolving in our league like getting back on defense, making the extra pass but if you just make more shots than your opponent then you got a good chance to win a basketball game and that’s what they did.”

While that is certainly the way to lose a game, basketball will offer multiple chances a majority of the time to get back in the game.

Window one came early in the third quarter when Phoenix was down 12. A broken-down possession forced a Chris Paul chucked jumper, an awesome Devin Booker block was followed by a missed Torrey Craig layup and then a Nuggets offensive rebound led to a Nikola Jokic 3. Phoenix’s next time down resulted in a Deandre Ayton miss from the short roll and it was back down 15 when it easily could have been single digits.

Window two was the start of the fourth quarter with the Suns down 13 when they scored on five straight possessions, only to allow the Nuggets to do the same. A failure to convert on a layup by Jeff Green was sandwiched by two Jamal Murray buckets and the “Blue Arrow” shot a dagger 3 shortly after to put Denver up 17 with 6:57 left that wrapped it up.

Murray relished the chance to face Phoenix in the postseason after missing the 2021 series due to injury. His shot-making was sublime and the Suns had zero answers for how to defend him. He had a game-high 34 points and nine assists on 13-of-24 shooting with two steals.

If there is another game in this series when Denver has the best player and it is not Jokic, the Suns are cooked.

“Let’s be honest — some of the shots he hit, I don’t think anybody could have stopped him tonight,” Williams said of Murray. “But we gotta do something a little bit different in our schemes to keep him from getting the ball or getting the ball out of his hands.”

Aaron Gordon, who had 36 total points in the four-game sweep two years ago, was fantastic offensively with 23 points on 9-for-13.

And even though the back-to-back MVP Jokic had an off night shooting of 9-for-21, his plentiful contributions of 24 points, 19 rebounds and five assists were more than enough.

Durant was outstanding, even with the seven turnovers and one assist, and Booker played pretty darn well too. But no one else made much of an impact. Again, the Suns can no longer win that way. Teams are too good at this stage of the playoffs. Booker started getting into downhill maniac mode again from round one in the fourth quarter but it hardly mattered, unlike the switch flip that was so effective against the Clippers.

Durant accounted for 29 points and 14 rebounds while Booker added 27 points with eight assists.

Ayton found some rhythm in the short roll as a scorer but he was outworked by Jokic. The latter is far, far more important, and if that’s a trend, it is a tremendous handicap for the Suns to try and make up for. Chris Paul was on the ball less and couldn’t find a flow for swinging the game from there.

Williams went with Landry Shamet as the first sub to keep some size in the backcourt and have another option defending Murray. That did not go well at all. Murray was extremely confident in treating Shamet as a mismatch, and it looked that way, even though Shamet played some really good defense on some of the possessions.

Sometimes in those situations, confidence is all that matters.

Given the shortcoming with 3-point attempts — Murray’s dagger was his sixth 3-point make and the Suns only had five at that point — it seems like that should be a role given back to Cam Payne. Denver wasn’t great at containing dribble penetration and that’s Payne’s bread and butter. He would generate 3s that way, and Craig did the best job on Murray of anyone anyway. Josh Okogie was back in the starting lineup to match up on Murray and played fine, doing well to fight through some actions to contain Murray.

Denver went small off the bench, as expected, and Phoenix stuck with a traditional backup 5. The results were mixed. The Suns did an OK job running the offense through the centers but it wasn’t decisive enough, and Denver won those minutes regardless.

Phoenix had 20 assists and 16 turnovers, good for a 1.25 assist-to-turnover ratio. It came into Saturday leading the league in a 2.18 for the playoffs and a 2.01 mark for the regular season was third.

Williams and Ayton both cited the ball movement not being good enough, with Williams saying the ball was “sticky” at times. Paul emphasized picking up the pace and taking the blame for it but there were a handful of times you could see him motioning for his team to join him in getting going off a miss. At one point, Paul turned around to start the break and saw an immobile Ayton right in front of him and gave him a tap to get down the floor.

The overall numbers outside of the shot attempt discrepancy weren’t particularly brutal for Phoenix. It got beat 18-7 in points off turnovers but second-chance points were 14-12 Denver and Phoenix won the fastbreak points 23-20.

What the Suns did wrong is correctable.

“I always believe in us,” Booker said when asked if that is the case. “We’ve been a good team all year of digesting the game, seeing what went on and learning from it and making those corrections.”

What looms after Game 1, though, is what the Nuggets did right. They were phenomenal, and Phoenix’s response in Monday’s Game 2 — whether in a win or loss — will be telling.

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