EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns-Nuggets Game 4 preview: Phoenix’s path to victory revealed

May 6, 2023, 3:53 PM | Updated: May 7, 2023, 11:34 am

Jamal Murray #27 of the Denver Nuggets and Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns attempt to control a...

Jamal Murray #27 of the Denver Nuggets and Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns attempt to control a loose ball during the second half of Game Three of the NBA Western Conference Semifinals at Footprint Center on May 05, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Nuggets 121-114. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — I would describe Devin Booker as a cool customer. Damian Lillard nailed it in another way two years ago.

The Phoenix Suns guard has an aesthetically pleasing game and the swagger that flows through it makes him who he is.

Oftentimes, leading by example is Booker’s style. He offers plenty of encouragement and will communicate as well. On top of that, he is one of the league’s most renown trash talkers.

But when watching back Friday’s Game 3 win over the Denver Nuggets, the fire he plays with exploded out of him, animating him in a new way. There is refusing to lose, and then there is doing it while putting the other team in the dirt.

This emanated off of him throughout the game, mostly when he was motivating his teammates, and when he had finally did the deed in the last minute, he let everyone know.

Late in the first half of a 2020-21 win over the New Orleans Pelicans, Phoenix was up 22 with the shot clock off to wrap the first half. Chris Paul made the smart basketball play to hold for one shot. Booker knows that’s the right decision. But he couldn’t help himself from the bench, wanting Paul to lay it on ’em even further with a transition opportunity.

There’s competitors. And then there’s people like this guy.

Booker scored 18 of his 47 points in the first quarter just to have Phoenix within two. Long-time watchers of him in the purple and orange started feeling like the Mr. Krabs meme, wondering if nothing was ever going to change, no matter if the team was winning 20 games or 60. Until the Suns prove otherwise, it is a reality we have to accept, that he’s going to have to shoulder a seemingly untenable amount of responsibility.

But through that, to return to leadership, his group responded to it and followed suit.

Suddenly, there it was. A murky path ahead to victory in this series cleared up.

Three years ago, the Suns’ team DNA started to take shape. As usual, it grabbed a handful of strands from its most impressionable contributors. Booker’s ruthlessness turned into a signature team attribute. The “wear-down effect” became a thing. By the mid-third quarter to early fourth quarter, you could see it on the opposition.

Look at Jamal Murray with three minutes to go in the third quarter.

And again at a little over five minutes to go.

Murray was the man through three quarters. He was 12-of-21 for 28 points. He shot 1-for-8 in the fourth.

The script has flipped on talent disparity. In round one, it was a constant talking point because the Los Angeles Clippers were without Paul George and Kawhi Leonard for the last three games. Now that Phoenix is missing Paul on a team with an already short bench, it’s now about how the Suns can do what the Clippers did to make up for it.

Energy and effort. That’s it, really!

Torrey Craig after practice on Saturday pointed out how the Suns got Denver back after they were the exhausted ones in Game 2.

Just the ebbs and flows of playoff basketball, right? Some nights you’re going to be the hammer and others you are the nail? No. Craig corrected me to further emphasize the point.

“I think last night was our standard,” Craig said. “I think we have to play like that throughout the series. We should have been playing like that the first two games. I think it would have helped us a lot. … That’s really been our recipe since I’ve been here. Just to play with pace and play fast.”

The bench was tremendous in this regard.

T.J. Warren worked his tail off defensively to prove his doubters wrong.

Landry Shamet deserves a ton of props for playing a part in swarming Murray.

And here is Warren fighting for a loose ball, Jock Landale flying up the floor yet again and then the same from Cam Payne to set up a dunk for Kevin Durant.

Payne was crucial in all of this. Friday was the fourth game of the Suns’ eight in the postseason when they reached at least 20 fastbreak points and ended up at 23.

The first four were a tone-setter from Payne. (Take a peek at who had to sprint back to mark Josh Okogie on the second clip.)

It was almost as if the man they call “Turbo” was looking for the game to give him any excuse to hustle. Payne plugged any gap missing on the floor by just running on both ends.

The rotation choices worked out great. Terrence Ross was deployed in the bridging minutes for the starters, allowing him to mostly be out there when Bruce Brown was the ball-handler for Denver and Ross held up well. He and Warren both had only one basket you could really point to and say was their fault.

It was good enough from them, and there were plenty of times Murray or Brown took one try at them and then didn’t go back for seconds. Wear-down effect played a hand there too. Look for Denver to play those two together more frequently to have an extra ball-handler out there, and for the duo to have a more aggressive mindset seeking out the mismatches.

Speaking of which, Okogie struggled on Murray early and ended up at just 10 minutes. Craig only played three. Shamet did the best on Murray. Could he, the guy lightly booed whenever he checked in, start Sunday’s Game 4?

Yes, it was necessary for Booker and Durant to combine for 86 points. But for the second straight game, Phoenix generated decent looks from 3 and they didn’t go down. It shot 9-for-28 (32%). As long as its effort continues to get better and Denver continues to get a bit disconnected because of it, the Suns can win this series.

And that brings us to Deandre Ayton.

There have been a few dozen games over the Monty Williams tenure when Ayton’s backup clearly was more engaged than him and it was arguably the correct decision to sit Ayton for the rest of the night. Williams understandably has almost never gone there, knowing how vital Ayton is to Phoenix’s championship aspirations and the need to keep his confidence in a good spot.

With the season on the line in Game 3, he did it with Landale. Prior to that choice, Williams had his in-between quarters interview on ESPN and brought attention to Ayton’s lack of force in relation to Landale. Public criticism coming Ayton’s way from a teammate or coach is another thing I only need one hand to count for how many times it’s happened.

Sunday is the most important game of Ayton’s career. The loathsome discourse surrounding Ayton’s effort over the years in the Valley reached the earshot of Landale, who defended him on Saturday.

“It’s tough for me to sit back and just be OK with all the slander that’s thrown DA’s way,” Landale said. “People are making him out to be like he’s a selfish individual who’s playing terribly all the time and hurts the Phoenix Suns. … He’s held down some big-time areas of games for us throughout the year and I’m kind of sick of hearing about everyone [expletive] on him nonstop. … DA’s been [expletive] great for us. … Who said anything about DA coming up to me and being like I’m going to take myself out of my own situations here and really reinforce what Jokic’s tendencies are and encourage me a lot more.

“We’re in a man’s league and a lot of the time the encouragement is left out of this thing. DA’s a great teammate, he’s a great locker room guy and I hear time and time again about how this guy doesn’t do that and it’s just [expletive].”

Landale presumably saw some of the reactions to the video of Ayton’s own initial reaction to sitting for the rest of Game 3.

As Landale said, Ayton has never been a bad teammate in that regard. He is always supporting the guys, especially those at his position. The clip was a bad moment and everyone has those.

Whatever side you come out on it, the days of these conversations mainly taking place in Phoenix are gone. Ayton playing like this when the bright lights are on has everyone aware of his issues in that department. SportsCenter’s 35 million Instagram followers seeing the viral clip from Game 1 is a lot different than three Suns fans bickering at each other on Twitter after a 23-point loss on a Tuesday in February three seasons ago.

In a poor postseason thus far, both for how Ayton is playing overall and what we know he’s capable of from the 2021 Finals run, the fact that Ayton couldn’t fully lock in for Phoenix’s biggest game of the season to avoid an inescapable 3-0 pit tells most of the story already. But it’s on him now to decide if this is what he wants his identity to be in the league. Everyone, from season-ticket holders to front office executives to casual fans across the world, is going to be watching to see how he responds.

The cement is starting to dry but hasn’t fully hardened just yet. We now know what the key to this series is for Phoenix to take it. And the big man is going to swing it with his effort and engagement, one way or the other.

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