PHOENIX SUNS

Suns wave white flag in Game 1 statement loss vs. Nuggets

Apr 29, 2023, 9:20 PM | Updated: 10:41 pm

DENVER – The Suns unveiled something completely unexpected on Saturday. Something you never expected to see in the postseason of 2023.

A white flag.

Maybe it was the altitude. Maybe it was the oxygen deficit paired with the hefty deficit on the scoreboard. But with 5:09 remaining in the fourth quarter, head coach Monty Williams pulled the plug and emptied the bench on a disjointed, demoralizing night in the Mile High City.

Yuck.

“We’ll be fine, I think,” Suns star Kevin Durant said.

For the second consecutive playoff series, the Suns lost Game 1. This one felt different. This was a heavyweight performance from the top-seeded Nuggets, who ran the Suns out of the gym; featured the best player on the court (Jamal Murray); made every big shot and repelled every Phoenix rally.

The good news? It can’t get any worse.

“We’re going to be better next game,” Williams vowed.

There will be obvious scapegoats targeted by the fan base. Deandre Ayton played lazy and tired, finishing with 10 fewer points and 12 fewer rebounds than Nikola Jokic, despite being guarded by much smaller players for most of the game. Landry Shamet made one shot in 14 minutes while Cam Payne only touched the court in garbage time.

But the real culprit is math. The Nuggets attempted 17 more field goals. They made nine more three-point shots. They had 11 more rebounds, including 16 on the offensive glass. Meanwhile, the Suns’ five three-point attempts in the first half tied for the lowest 24-minute output of any team this season.

Again, nobody likes math. Especially the Suns, who have been plagued by a weak perimeter defense ever since Mikal Bridges left for Brooklyn. If they don’t get a better plan of attack on Denver’s sharpshooters, this series might be our worst nightmare.

“I thought we gave them their shots,” Williams said. “A few times we didn’t even get a hand up.”

The game started well. Durant opened with a 15-point first quarter, and for a while, appeared he was going to post monster numbers. But his fast start seemed to inspire Devin Booker to do the same, and the ball began to stick. The offense bogged down. And every time the Suns mounted some form of protest, they turned the ball over or missed simple shots at the rim.

“I thought they were just more physical and played with more force, especially in the second quarter,” Williams said. “That’s where we lost the momentum.”

The Suns have many issues to correct, including defensive focus, physicality and not losing Murray in transition. The pace of play on offense must get better. Same with the volume of three-point shots. He took solace in how the team rebounded from a Game 1 loss to the Clippers, and how their core players have plenty of big-game experience.

In a strong show of leadership, Durant shouldered most of the blame due to his seven turnovers, despite being his team’s best overall performer.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” he said. “I’m looking forward to Game 2, though.”

The Nuggets are a fast, deep team full of shot makers and they are clearly vibing on the perceived lack of respect. Many people, including the oddsmakers, installed the Suns as favorites in this series.

There was great suspicion regarding the Nuggets’ postseason pedigree, as Jokic’s previous two MVP trophies both resulted in dramatic playoff failure. Meanwhile, the Nuggets aren’t even the third favorite team in their own city, trailing the Broncos and the Avalanche. And the crowd at Ball Arena is not exactly hostile.

But after his sixth trey prompted a desperation timeout from the Suns, Murray played to the crowd. He whipped the gathering into a frenzy, delivering a strong message in the process.

“We’re ready for this! We’re ready for this,” Murray screamed.

That might be our biggest problem of all.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 6 a.m. – 10 a.m. on 98.7.

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