DAN BICKLEY

Suns arrive home with heavy mission after disheartening Game 2 loss to Nuggets

May 1, 2023, 10:49 PM | Updated: May 2, 2023, 12:39 am

Phoenix Suns' Kevin Durant...

Kevin Durant (35) of the Phoenix Suns lies on the floor after falling hard during the third quarter against the Denver Nuggets 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 – Anger. Heartbreak. A Chris Paul injury.

It wouldn’t be a postseason in Phoenix without that tiresome trifecta.

Alas, the Suns arrive home with a heavy mission. Following a disheartening 97-87 loss to the Nuggets on Monday, they need to win four of the next five games against the No. 1 seed in the West. They left Ball Arena to brief, silly chants of “Nugs in Four!” And before his postgame press conference had ended, head coach Monty Williams appealed to all ticketholders in the Valley to provide a raucous home-court advantage for his wounded team.

“We have to go home and take care of business,” Williams said. “That’s where we are right now.”

A groin injury to Paul complicates matters, cementing his legacy as the star player with the absolute worst postseason luck. When he left the game, the Suns led by eight points. While Devin Booker is clearly a capable option, his workload is already maxed out. And with Booker and Kevin Durant each logging over 44 minutes at high altitude in Game 2, the top-heavy Suns ultimately succumbed to fatigue in the fourth quarter, scoring just 14 points in the final 12 minutes.

“I think it’s a lot,” Williams said. “(Booker) was probably more tired than he would admit, but with Chris off the floor, it puts a lot of pressure on him. So I’ve got to figure that out.”

Booker seemed resolute after the game, telling his teammates in the locker room that they must relish the challenge ahead.

“We’re going to hold it down while he’s out – if he’s out – and just take it from there,” Booker said.

The Suns did a lot of things extremely well in Game 2. They rebounded. They played tenacious defense in the first half. They hounded Jamal Murray, who followed up his Game 1 domination with one of the worst nights of his professional career.

But the Suns couldn’t make shots. They attempted to solve their math problem by hoisting up 31 shots but netted only six of them. They stopped executing in the fourth quarter. They were also hampered by a bad night from Kevin Durant, who missed 17 of 27 shots and had the knee-jerkers in the fan base once again lamenting the loss of Mikal Bridges.

“We held them to 97 points,” Booker said. “That’s usually a win for us if we get our offense going.”

Panic if you want, but this series isn’t over. Remember, the Suns led the Mavericks 2-0 in last year’s Western Conference semifinals before losing their edge and their momentum. And in the NBA, they say nothing happens in a playoff series until the home team loses.

Here’s the good news: role players generally perform much better at home during the playoffs, and the Suns desperately need more from their bench. Jock Landale played with great hustle and energy on Monday. But Damion Lee, Cam Payne and Torrey Craig combined to go 1-for-14 from the field.

The Suns also desperately need an extended break, which they will receive before Game 3 on Friday. But somebody has to step up if Paul isn’t ready, and his condition doesn’t sound promising.

“I mean, the playoffs are a lot,” Booker said. “A lot comes with this. You just have to embrace it. Embrace the challenge. Embrace the opportunity we have right now, even down 0-2. Get back home, protect homecourt and go from there.”

There is very little margin for error. There is also a ton of pressure on the Suns to prevail at home and claw their way back into the series, and we’ve all witnessed what suffocating pressure has done to this franchise in the recent past. The Suns haven’t had a must-win game at Footprint Center since that appalling series finale against Dallas.

Let’s hope this one looks a lot different.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 6 a.m. – 10 a.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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