EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Booker, Durant carry Suns to required victory over Nuggets

May 6, 2023, 12:33 AM | Updated: 2:08 am

PHOENIX — You won’t go that far with just two players. Basketball is too much of a team sport. It will not allow that. The end of the road will arrive eventually.

But taking a few games along the way in that fashion? If the players are great enough? Sure!

Devin Booker and Kevin Durant were the only two Phoenix Suns with more than seven points in Friday’s must-win Game 3 against the Denver Nuggets. They combined for 86 in Phoenix’s 121-114 win to stay alive in the series, down 2-1.

For the Suns to be without Chris Paul (left groin strain) and find a winning formula, we knew the majority of the ingredients involved those two playing like superstars. And in a desperate but controlled manner. They achieved that monumental task.

“They just knew what we had to do to win this game,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “Kev is still finding his way and his rhythm. … Book was amazing. From start to finish.”

Due to our inability to monitor multiple galaxies and basketball being played in other solar systems, I am just going to have to go out on a limb right now and say Booker has been the best playing in the sport since the playoffs started. He certainly is on this planet, at least.

Booker was 20-of-25 from the field, including 15-of-17 on 2s, for 47 points to go with six rebounds, nine assists, three steals, a block and three turnovers.

“I just thought it was his will, determination, reading the defense, getting off the ball — and even defensively, just competing,” Williams said of Booker.

“I’m at a loss for words,” Durant said of Booker, having to stop for a second to collect his thoughts when his brain told him it was time to start talking about Booker during one of his answers.

Booker’s two free throws with the game wrapped up at six seconds left prevented him from setting the new playoff record for most points without a free throw, which still stands now at 39.

His third game of this postseason with 45-plus points has him join Elgin Baylor (1961), Kevin Durant (2019), Allen Iverson (2001), LeBron James (2018), Michael Jordan (1989, 1990, 1992) and Jerry West (1965) as the only ones to do it, per Stathead.

Booker had his biggest 18 points of the season in the first quarter. A raucous Phoenix crowd was ready to give its team the extra energy it required but only Booker had it going. The Nuggets played a poised 12 minutes to still be up two despite the start of Booker’s terror.

Durant was 1-for-7 across that stretch. And while the efficiency never really recovered, at 12-for-31 overall, he refused to allow that to hold him back from scoring and slashed his way to the basket continuously to draw fouls. He got the Suns in the bonus three minutes into the second quarter and kept finding free throws, going 14-of-16 for nearly all of the free tosses outside of Booker’s pair in garbage time.

“It’s not like a conscious thing,” Durant said of getting to the stripe. “I just feel like a lot of teams play me super aggressive, physical, put their hands on me so I try to use that against them and get downhill.”

Durant finished with 39 points, nine rebounds, eight assists, two blocks and zero turnovers. The search for the usual Durant we see this time of year persists but his ability to produce despite that remains a pleasure to watch. He admitted it’s still a bit of overthinking and pressing going on for him.

Phoenix opened up the second half with a 15-point lead thanks to some better overall team play that went beyond just those two guys.

The bench, yes the bench, was great. A 19-3 run for the Suns was the true difference maker and it had a lot to do with Jock Landale’s nonstop energy, Terrence Ross’ shooting, Landry Shamet’s tremendous defensive pursuit and timely plays out of T.J. Warren.

“They were huge,” Durant said of the reserves. “Ross coming in just shooting those shots. 2-for-7, but they’re good looks. We need those. Jock came in, with six (points) and nine (rebounds) — incredible minutes for us. Landry came in and gave us some great minutes and T.J. made some big shots there in the fourth.”

But the Nuggets came out of halftime and triggered their gambit.

They swapped the defensive matchups, putting Aaron Gordon on Deandre Ayton to stifle the ball-screen actions in the same way the Los Angeles Clippers did with Kawhi Leonard in round one. Phoenix rarely gets individual offense out of Ayton, so no harm there.

Additionally, there was at least one extra body coming toward Booker or Durant once they dribbled inside the 3-point line. If Booker was trying to reset on the perimeter, another Nuggets defender would come over to force him off the ball. Both were swarmed by the time they got to the midrange pockets they thrived out of.

On the other end, the Nuggets targeted Ayton’s ball-screen coverage to tremendous effect. It was his worst defensive stretch of the postseason and ended when he watched Jokic grab an offensive rebound right by him before picking up his fourth foul. The effort wasn’t present, but critically, his execution in being in the right spot to contain the actions was just as awful.

Two-and-a-half minutes into the quarter, Williams pulled Josh Okogie for Shamet to improve spacing. Nothing helped, though, and over five minutes it was the clearest case of two guys trying to beat an entire team on their own. Denver got contributions from everyone in the quarter while Booker and Durant tried to set up open teammates when they could but also pressed the issue to shoot over 2-3 defenders because, well, they had to.

The momentum completely swung and Phoenix was up just two going into the fourth quarter.

“We came out of halftime poor,” Booker said. “I think we were too complacent, got comfortable.”

To open the fourth, Phoenix adjusted and found more room for Booker to score. He got two buckets in the first 90 seconds, and that plus a Cam Payne 3 was a 7-0 run that inspired an angry Nuggets timeout with them suddenly down 11.

At 8:01 left and Phoenix up nine, Booker picked up his fifth foul and had to sit. It seemed impossible for the Suns to function at all without his latest monstrous two-way effort but they managed over three minutes to go just minus two.

In that stretch, Ayton missed a layup and turned over the ball after grabbing a defensive rebound. Landale was coming off another great shift and it was obvious he needed to end the game over Ayton. Williams, however, has shown endless faith in Ayton and refused to sit him in just about every game where a similar situation has popped up.

Shockingly, Landale arose from the bench. He had a quick talk with the assistant coaches, making sure he was going in. He double-checked with Williams at the scorer’s table. He did not get bad information. His number had been called.

After a timeout was taken, Ayton went from the huddle toward the coaches to double-check for himself. He received the bad news and Paul gave him a tap to encourage Ayton after he was informed his night was over. Paul extended his hand for a dap as Ayton was walking away and Ayton did not reciprocate. He stewed on the end of the bench the rest of the huddle, with Damion Lee and Payne both trying to calm him down. A few minutes later, Ayton was much more like himself, encouraging Landale and getting back involved in the game from the bench.

Meanwhile, a game reached its conclusion. After a Jokic and-one with three minutes to go put Denver within five, Warren missed a corner 3. Jamal Murray got a great look on his own 3 on the other end that did not go down. The next time down for Phoenix, Warren was open in the same exact spot.

And Booker, just like the last time, fed him the ball again. Warren drilled it.

“We have a long-standing relationship. I believe in Tony to the fullest. That’s actually what I was yelling at him after he made the second shot,” Booker said of his teammate from 2015-19.

Warren answered a ridiculous Michael Porter Jr. poster and-one dunk for Denver with a midrange bucket (off a pump fake from the same spot set up by Booker for the third time in a row) and Murray missed another open 3 to wrap the proceedings.

Murray was outstanding for three quarters but didn’t have enough in the fourth and ended up 13-of-29 for 32 points. Jokic was the catalyst for that third quarter explosion and produced 30 points, 17 rebounds and 17 assists to become the first player in NBA history to have 25-15-15 in a playoff game. On many nights, they would have been far and away the best star duo. It was not one of those nights.

The minutes for Okogie (10) and Torrey Craig (3) dipped drastically as the likes of Ross and Warren did enough defensively to hang on the floor. Even though it was a well-discussed tweak to make, it was still a gamble, and Williams deserves credit for it. He does as well for closing with Landale and going back to Shamet, who was working so hard defensively. And he wasn’t the hardest-working Sun somehow because of what Landale did flying up and down the floor while crashing the glass maniacally.

“He just scrapped,” Williams said of Landale. “You couldn’t point out anything that he did from a high-level skill perspective. But he just scrapped.”

Payne got the nod in place of Paul, a reasonable decision. He was a huge plus in the game just for pushing the pace alone, something the Suns sorely need. He combined with Booker and Durant for 23 assists and four turnovers. That was huge.

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