EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns steamrolled by superior Nuggets team, eliminated at home

May 11, 2023, 11:09 PM | Updated: 11:48 pm

Devin Booker #1 stands with head coach Monty Williams of the Phoenix Suns during the second quarter...

Devin Booker #1 stands with head coach Monty Williams of the Phoenix Suns during the second quarter against the Denver Nuggets in game six of the Western Conference Semifinal Playoffs at Footprint Center on May 11, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — It was not the same but it sure shared some similarities.

The Phoenix Suns for the second straight season have been blown out in their own building to end the playoffs at the second round, this time a 125-100 loss in Game 6 to the Denver Nuggets.

“It sucked. It was a bad feeling. It was embarrassing,” Suns forward Kevin Durant said. “They came out and hit us in the mouth and we couldn’t recover. You gotta give them credit for being a disciplined team.”

Once the steam roller got in motion, a flattened Phoenix was stuck on it and kept spinning right with it. The Suns were down 30 at halftime, the same deficit as Game 7 last year against the Dallas Mavericks, and it inspired the same reaction from their fans who booed them off the floor.

Versus Dallas, the Suns were immediately in a haze. Zero focus, pressing like they were snatched by a giant crane machine and instantly dropped right into Footprint Center with no preparation, looking around the room all befuddled before hearing a whistle blow. You know how Katniss Everdeen looked around in the Hunger Games when she rose up out of that tube? Like that.

Phoenix was focused for most of the opening frame. It was not coming close to bordering on quitting in an embarrassing fashion like that group did.

But oftentimes, the best team in the world at some point in the playoffs will deliver a haymaker to self-anoint itself as such to the onlookers. The first quarter was that from the Nuggets.

They scored 22 of their first 27 points in the paint and ended the last 4:10 on a 23-2 run, scoring on 10 straight possessions. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 17 of his 21 points in the quarter. During the last 90 seconds, the crowd got real quiet, sensing their squad was simply overmatched in a 44-26 rout.

“It was pretty much the whole game,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “Eighty-one points in the first half. It was deflating to just see them score like that, running down the floor getting easy buckets.”

The Suns, without Deandre Ayton (rib contusion) and Chris Paul (left groin strain), were always going to require magical performances from Devin Booker and Kevin Durant but it wasn’t discussed enough how much more difficult it would be to find them enough room to do so.

Denver hyper-loaded its defense to contain space for those guys and was outstanding with its execution. The Nuggets were willingly leaving solid shooters on the perimeter, daring the star duo to hit ridiculous shots and for its depleted supporting cast to beat them. They were really only defending two guys.

Both of them did not have the energy to really push into the teeth of the defense beyond that initial pressure point. I will point directly at their minute totals as a byproduct of that.

Booker was clearly playing through some type of lower-body injury that prevented him from consistently triggering his burst. He went sideline-to-sideline for a sprinting steal attempt in the third quarter of the Game 5 loss and was laboring the rest of the way after that. Whatever that was, it carried over to Thursday.

Creating separation is vital for any high-level scorer and Booker wasn’t able to, especially while trying to generate rim pressure, which Booker was providing in spades all postseason to be the best performer in it.

He has essentially been playing in gear five or above on 40-plus minutes over this whole run but rarely shifted above three on Thursday. Booker got a rest at the start of the second and fourth quarters for the first time this postseason. In addition to that and as previously mentioned, Booker saw an extra two defenders once he penetrated for most of the night, like Durant.

Williams confirmed that was what he was seeing with Booker as far as a potential injury.

“I haven’t gotten a medical report on that but I think he is dealing with some soreness,” Williams said. “Just watching him, he didn’t have that same pop and he’s just too tough of a guy to admit when he’s feeling something. … He just was toughing it out.”

Durant’s the best shotmaker in the history of basketball, often defined as unguardable because of his ability to rise up and convert over anyone. He did not thrive with his usual excellency in that department for the last month and really needed to get an easy look or two to find a rhythm like just about every other player in the league. That’s been a challenge to find for him in the flow of the offense all year.

It was a challenging venture to assimilate so quickly midseason as it was and then his freak ankle injury in pregame warmups really put the Suns in a bind. They won’t admit it but that’s what this was, unsuccessfully attempting to figure out the incorporation of Durant on the fly. I can’t help but think of how much easier it looked for him before the ankle injury in those three games with lower stakes and far worse opposition to acclimate against. Expect to see him back to playing like himself with a summer to fully get healthy and a training camp to settle in.

Durant has denied the notion that it was because of the short timeframe for weeks now and didn’t want to go there postgame.

“If I provide context it would just be looked at as an excuse,” he said. “We just gotta be better next year.”

Durant did say it felt like he was chucking a bit with 3s in particular.

“Felt good in spurts. It wasn’t consistent. … It’s just the name of the game,” he said. “It’s frustrating for sure but just keep working.”

The first half saw those two combine for 6-of-23 shooting for 19 points shooting and unsurprisingly that put Phoenix in a massive hole, again thanks largely to how brilliant the Nuggets were.

Phoenix was down 15 with five minutes left in the half before that haze returned and Denver jumped ’em with a 21-6 spurt in the last 4:46.

It’s the type of repeated failure that will rightfully draw questions for everybody, from the roster to the coaches to the front office.

Williams deserves a lot of blame, as any coach in his position for this would be. He pointed the finger right at himself afterward.

“That falls on my shoulders, not having us ready to play at the highest level in the biggest game of the year,” Williams said.

Last postseason in Game 7, the Suns scored 27 points in the first half and followed it up with just 23 in the third quarter before a 40-point fourth made a 123-90 final look better than it was.

The Suns put up a fight before the game was really over on Thursday. They cut Denver’s lead down to 23 with 7:44 left in the third quarter to make Michael Malone call his last rage timeout of the series. In 2022, a Dwight Powell dunk for Dallas grew its lead to 40 and Phoenix had 32 points. Thirty-two. Both performances are bad but Game 7 was a special type of awful.

The Suns never got close enough to make it a game again, a testament to the complete team focus Denver is in possession of right now.

Booker recorded 12 points, eight assists and two turnovers on 4-of-13 shooting. We have never seen a Sun better in the postseason and it’s a real shame this run concluded like this for him. He uncharacteristically left the arena before speaking with the media and will presumably talk after exit interviews on Friday.

Durant started 1-of-10 and made seven of his final nine shots for 23 points, five rebounds, five assists and four turnovers.

Cam Payne at one point had 19 of the Suns’ 41 points. He finished with 31 (12-of-15). Payne was the one role player able to produce to some level. Jock Landale, starting in place of Ayton, came in with the right mindset to be extremely physical against Nikola Jokic but picked up two quick fouls in six minutes. He still played well overall all things considered.

It was an absolute treat to watch Jokic on this stage. His 30 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists, three steals, a block and two turnovers on 13-of-18 shooting puts a stamp on a magnificent series from one of the greatest basketball players of all time that is still just 28 years old.

Jamal Murray added 26 points, four rebounds, four assists and four steals in a game he was questionable for because of a non-COVID illness. He was awesome all series too.

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