Suns need more effort, focus to keep series alive vs. Nuggets

Apr 30, 2023, 2:59 PM | Updated: May 1, 2023, 9:05 am

Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, top right, looks to pass the ball as Phoenix Suns forward Kevin ...

Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, top right, looks to pass the ball as Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant (35) and center Deandre Ayton, second from left, and forward Josh Okogie (2) defend in the first half of Game 1 of an NBA second-round basketball series Saturday, April 29, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

DENVER – Failure can take many acceptable forms, from bad matchups to the effects of high altitude on a top-heavy team already taxing its best players.

The Suns cannot lose playoff games because of effort and focus.

That is unacceptable. And both were culprits in the Suns’ 125-107 loss in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals to the Denver Nuggets.

“I did not think we were the aggressors in many respects,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said.

Start with center Deandre Ayton, who remains infuriating, polarizing and occasionally delusional. He is a highly compensated player with dizzying potential and unfathomable laziness. In a clip that went viral on Saturday, he was caught loitering out of bounds under the Nuggets basket as his teammates were fighting for rebounds. It was almost like he was waiting for the Nuggets to score so he could inbound the ball.

It was a terrible look for a player recently offended by questions about his balky motor. He responded by bragging about his “Tesla battery,” his nickname (Dominayton) and how he is the Suns’ anchor on both sides of the court.

Ayton was badly outplayed by Nikola Jokic in Game 1, even though the Nuggets center was hardly at his best. But Jokic is a player who has transformed himself into the best athlete he can be. And when Jokic beats Ayton down the floor, we have problems.

The heightened physicality of the playoffs obviously bothers Ayton. He checked out of the NBA Finals two years ago when the grueling grind of guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo became too much. He allegedly quit on his teammates in last year’s Game 7 debacle against Dallas. He needs to bring a lot more force to the court in every phase of the game if the Suns are going to eliminate the top-seeded Nuggets.

“He would tell you (his force) wasn’t where it needs to be,” Williams said. “He would probably say he could ratchet it up three or four levels, but I think the whole team feels that way. We all have a bit of personal disappointment.”

As for focus?

The Suns need to trim the fat and limit turnovers. Play with greater pace and purpose. Space the floor. Find a reliable rotation. Take and make open three-point shots. And once again, Devin Booker and Chris Paul need to keep their tempers in check.

Late in the game, an agitated Paul took liberties with Nuggets star Jamal Murray, body-checking him to the floor with an extremely clever dirty play. But we can all see Paul’s frustrations mounting from a mile away, and it can be a highly destructive force.

Meanwhile, in an absurd postgame assessment, Booker blamed the officiating after Game 1. His body language towards the referees during the game was over the top, and exactly what he shouldn’t be doing if he wants to curry favor from NBA referees.

It might be too late for Paul, whose dislike of officials is well-established and likely mutual. But Booker is still young and ascending. He needs to master the game within the game, the one that is playing out between his ears.

After Sunday’s practice, Kevin Durant shared his wisdom on the subject. He learned that arguing with referees is a losing proposition, and the same applies with flopping, falling or attempting to fool those toting whistles.

His philosophy?

“Play stronger,” he said. “Be precise with my moves and try not to let the refs get involved at all.”

It’s great advice from a player who knows what it takes. And if the rest of the Suns can learn from their mistakes in Game 1, the series is not a lost cause. It’s only just the beginning.

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

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Suns need more effort, focus to keep series alive vs. Nuggets