EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns’ pace and space gives Nuggets 1st adversity of playoffs

May 6, 2023, 6:28 PM

TJ Warren and Kevin Durant in Game 3 of Suns-Nuggets...

Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns celebrates with T.J. Warren #21 after scoring and drawing a foul against the Denver Nuggets during the first half of Game Three of the NBA Western Conference Semifinals at Footprint Center on May 05, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — The story started with Chris Paul wearing a green fit on the bench and Cam Payne getting a green light.

The butterfly effect of Paul’s absence with a groin injury went deeper Friday as the Phoenix Suns pulled within 2-1 in the Western Conference semifinals with a 121-114 win over the Denver Nuggets at Footprint Center.

It reflected in monster games for Devin Booker and Kevin Durant.

Booker put in a masterful 47 points on 20-of-25 shooting that put him in rare statistical company with Michael Jordan and LeBron James.

Durant scored 39 points despite an off-night after he got 14 points at the foul line.

“Well, I actually thought we did a pretty good job on KD aside from the fouling, you look at his line — 12 of 31 from the field — but our defense on Devin Booker was unacceptable,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said Friday after his team’s loss, perturbed by Booker a few times walking into threes.

“He was 20 of 25. I wasn’t a math major but that’s really high percentage,” Malone added. “So we got to be a hell of a lot better. They played fast tonight. Cameron Payne really set the tone with that. Makes, misses, turnovers, they got out and ran. Twenty-three fastbreak points is way too many.”

Booker walking into a three-pointer or two aside, maybe it’s not so simple as effort.

Phoenix frequently rejected ball screens when Denver showed two defenders ready to meet Booker at the level on the other side of those screens.

Malone said that allowed Booker just to get downhill with Nuggets bodies out of position.

Denver also played a bit of drop coverage with Denver center Nikola Jokic sitting back on pick-and-rolls, allowing Booker and Durant to operate in the midrange. It didn’t help that the Suns put Durant and Booker in actions together — if not sticking them a pass away from one another to keep help from coming.

The lineup changes played into Booker having more room to work, as well. The Suns prioritized pace and floor spacing with Terrence Ross and T.J. Warren entering the rotation alongside Payne.

Warren scored five points in the final 2:23 of the game, keeping the Nuggets at bay. He finished with a team-best +20 plus-minus, as his defense and rebounding (three boards) also popped.

“We expected them to play, T.J. Warren and Terrence Ross,” Jokic said after the game, citing Suns coach Monty Williams’ mention of that duo earlier in the week. “You know … I think they didn’t surprise us, to be honest. We expected them to do that.”

Payne’s change-of-pace wasn’t surprising to the Nuggets, either. Still, it was felt from the jump. His first basket, the Suns’ first as a team, was a sign. A Durant rebound put the ball in Payne’s hands, and he raced up to score five seconds into the shot clock.

Aside from one Warren assist to Durant with 40 seconds left that gave Phoenix an eight-point lead, Payne had the only assists from a Suns player not named Booker or Durant. The point guard finished with nine points and six assists in 30 minutes, a workload that took enough off Booker (nine assists) and Durant (eight assists) to help with the playmaking load.

The Suns, with all Williams’ puzzle-piece shuffling following the Durant trade still so fresh, may have found something in Game 3.

Now it’s on the Nuggets, with all their health and continuity as the best regular season team in the Western Conference, to react.

“We’ve had no adversity in the postseason. Things have gone really, really smooth. And adversity is coming,” Malone said prior to his team’s loss, knocking on the desk twice.

“It’s knocking on the door and we have to be ready for that. Knowing our guys, I know that they will be.”

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