Suns, Kevin Durant miss golden opportunity in Game 2 loss to Nuggets

May 1, 2023, 11:42 PM | Updated: May 2, 2023, 8:21 am

Kevin Durant (35) of the Phoenix Suns heads to the foul line as Bruce Brown (11) of the Denver Nugg...

Kevin Durant (35) of the Phoenix Suns heads to the foul line as Bruce Brown (11) of the Denver Nuggets speaks to teammates during the third quarter at Ball Arena in Denver on Monday, May 1, 2023. (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 — Leave it to the squad called the Nuggets to offer up the golden opportunity.

The Phoenix Suns will never have a better chance to win in Denver this series than they did on Monday in Game 2 against a superb home team.

There are handfuls of intricacies inside the Suns’ 97-87 loss that will make you trip and fall over if you try to carry all of them at once.

But basketball is simple. After all, he says it himself.

Monday was the first real game the Suns played with Kevin Durant where the reasons why they gave up a truck load of assets was due to come to fruition.

The check did not cash.

Durant ended the night 10-of-27 for 24 points, with eight rebounds, three assists, a steal, two blocks and two turnovers in 44 minutes. Hardly an awful stat line, nor performance. But Phoenix lost Chris Paul due to a left groin injury in the third quarter, Devin Booker did what at this point feels like a freaking prerequisite carrying act for portions of the game and it got a reenergized Deandre Ayton in a game that hung from the rafters up for grabs for what felt like ages.

All the Suns required was for their second star to contribute in the way he is expected to in order to steal a game they shot 40% in. The all-timers like Durant sense those moments and snatch ’em up with ruthless precision. Expecting anything less from him would be an absolute and utter insult to his greatness.

But Durant couldn’t deliver. He was 2-for-12 on 3s, most of them fairly decent looks for one of the best 3-point shooters ever. Durant never had it going for more than a minute across any period. His shooting by quarter was 2-for-8, 2-for-5, 2-for-4 and 4-for-10, respectively. His last two field goals came when the game was already out of reach.

“They were good looks. Just didn’t go down,” Durant said of his shots.

“Just couldn’t knock ’em down. Felt like they was good leaving my hand but it is what it is.”

Paul’s injury status will define how much this loss comes back to bite Phoenix after he tweaked his groin going up for a rebound. If he can’t return the rest of the way, the Suns would need at least one masterclass from Booker and Durant each night, plus the return of Ayton from the 2021 playoffs. If Paul comes back, he still won’t be at 100%, like we’ve seen the last two postseasons. It’ll still take just about the best from the other three.

Thus, it cannot be stated enough how much the Suns had to win this one.

They were up seven with under three minutes to go in the third quarter, 90 seconds after Paul had exited. Up until then, they had righted the wrongs in their offense, getting back to great movement and unlocking 3-point opportunities by swinging the ball to the second side. They could have been leading by 20 if the quality of shots matched how often the ball was going in.

A lot of that had to do with Paul, and once he came out, the Suns lost that rhythm. Denver’s late defensive wrinkles, like putting Aaron Gordon on Ayton, stalled them out. When an action didn’t work, it was hero ball from Durant or Booker. That’s when superstars can bail their squad out. Durant couldn’t, and Booker had expended himself too much already for one more surge of brilliance.

“The thing that was working was kicking it on the back side and just playing 0.5,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “And it kind of got away from it a little bit and we missed a ton of shots. … We figured out a formula to run an action, kick it and then play out of that and that’s something that we got to stick to against this team the way they play in pick-and-roll.”

Only eight points were scored in the first 3:51 of the fourth quarter and they all came from Denver to put it up five, which included a pair of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope triples. Phoenix’s defense was doing a tremendous job forcing the Nuggets to beat them through the individual scoring of Nikola Jokic, Michael Porter Jr. and Gordon by containing Jamal Murray to successfully cut the head off the snake but the dam on an offense as good as Denver’s was eventually going to burst. Cracks routinely appeared until Murray’s make at 8:24 to go brought on a “finally!” hands-up gesture from the star of Saturday’s Game 1 victory who shot 3-for-15.

Durant scored on two consecutive possessions and then Booker got a middy to go down as well, signaling that perhaps Phoenix’s superstar shot-making would save the day. But instead, it was the better team to win.

At 4:56 to go, it was a three-point game after an Ayton dunk set up by Josh Okogie as the screener to counter Jokic’s use on him. But that counter continued halting Phoenix’s flow. Booker and Durant both took 3s off no good ball movement, missing. And then another Jokic bucket was followed by Durant having to force up a double-teamed jumper that was blocked after yet another failed offensive set.

Caldwell-Pope, who was outstanding in this ballgame, drilled his third 3 of the fourth quarter the next time down and Murray pulled back the quiver and released his second Blue Arrow dagger of the series on a deep step-back two for a 91-81 scoreline at 2:04 remaining to end it.

Suns players outside of Booker and Durant were 0-for-11 from 3 and the Suns shot 19% as a team on 31 attempts.

The majority of them were shots they normally make. Booker made the only corner 3 out of 12 attempts, a once-in-a-few-dozen type of occurrence on the best shot in basketball. Damion Lee is a terrific shooter and missed a trio of overall 3s. Cam Payne, another solid one, couldn’t get it to go on all four of his attempts.

I have to say, as someone who has covered Booker’s whole career so far, it is getting pretty ridiculous how the story doesn’t change in terms of how much his team has to ask out of him. His organization traded for two of the best to ever do it with plenty left in the tank, and for the third straight postseason, it’s just all on him still. It’s a gift and a curse right now for the Suns.

He doesn’t care, of course. That’s what he lives for.

“I love it,” Booker said when asked about the confidence level down 0-2. “I just love playoff basketball. That’s the first thing I said when I got in the locker room. You just have to love this [expletive], embrace it. There’s not many people that get the chance to do what we’re doing playing the highest level of basketball. Compete at the highest level, don’t forget to have fun with it (and) just get after it every chance we get.”

Even with Booker’s pristine shot-making to create something out of nothing and his constant effort to get his teammates involved (even when they kept letting him down), this was still not at the bar he normally reaches. Booker was recklessly hunting for fouls and attacking defenders in search of any type of free throws for Phoenix, the first time this postseason his tremendous downhill mentality was slightly backfiring to a reckless extent.

He finished with 35 points, five rebounds, six assists and two turnovers on 14-for-29 shooting in 45 minutes. He spent time defending Murray some as part of the tweaks to limit the star guard. That, plus the extra point guard duties once Paul went down and the crazy minutes he’s been on this postseason wore him out. He gets a well-deserved rest the next three days.

Ayton was much, much better with his energy after a poor Game 1 outing. He made Jokic work his tail off to keep up with him and paid back the trust given to him by the coaches, with the game plan allowing for Jokic to go at him 1-on-1 without any help. Jokic wound up with 39 points on 17-of-30 shooting and it would have been 50-plus on most centers across the league. He added 16 rebounds, five assists, two steals and a block with three turnovers.

In what has previously almost exclusively been a conversation held by those watching the Suns every night, Ayton’s inconsistent motor has now gained a mainstream eye. A clip of Ayton watching Jokic tip offensive rebounds went viral on Saturday and was posted on the Instagram pages for ESPN and SportsCenter.

SportsCenter has 34 million followers and Ayton commented on it with a clapping emoji, and I’ll need an emoji translator to assess what exactly he meant with that.

TNT’s Inside the NBA has had numerous discussions about Ayton but has never focused strictly on his effort until Monday, when all-time-centers Mount Rushmore member Shaquille O’Neal wanted Ayton to step it up and proclaimed he’d be watching the big man closely for Game 2.

Ayton responded. The 14 points, eight rebounds and four assists do not tell the tale of how effective he was, as the box score never does with him anyway.

“I liked his energy tonight,” Durant said of Ayton. “He started the game off well. I think he had some foul trouble, which might have taken him out of the game a bit. But I like how he started, I liked his energy and we’re gonna need to build on that going forward.”

Lee was really, really good. Williams continues to catch flack online but the coaching staff’s adjustments on Murray and plan to have Jokic beat them should have resulted in a victory. And Lee’s 26 minutes were full of vigor in the glue guy areas. He recorded three offensive rebounds and his activity was great defensively.

Payne struggled but what he was doing as a slasher to generate rim pressure and ball rotations still helped. Landry Shamet did not play.

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