Jae Crowder #99 of the Phoenix Suns reacts after scoring against the Denver Nuggets during the second half in Game Two of the Western Conference second-round playoff series at Phoenix Suns Arena on June 09, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
PHOENIX — You never want to overreact to the first game of a playoff series in any sport, but the Phoenix Suns’ win over the Denver Nuggets on Monday felt stylistically, schematically and personnel-wise like Denver was in trouble.
That hypothesis was confirmed in Game 2 on Wednesday, a 123-98 shellacking that put the Suns up 2-0 in the series.
For the second straight game, it was a half the Suns didn’t play all that well in. The offense, in particular, stagnated for parts of the second quarter and Deandre Ayton got two fouls in the first five minutes, leaving Dario Saric to guard MVP Nikola Jokic.
But a horrid 4-for-22 shooting half from deep for Denver allowed Phoenix to still be in front, plus the Nuggets lost those Ayton-less minutes with Jokic on the floor.
Suns head coach Monty Williams thought it was one of the Suns’ best defensive halves, and enough plays were made by Devin Booker and Chris Paul offensively to have Phoenix up 11 at the half.
Jokic had found somewhat of a rhythm compared to Game 1, Ayton’s level of play was down and the Nuggets had gotten to nine second-chance points in the first quarter after reaching just eight on Monday.
It felt like a window was there for the Nuggets to steal one, but the Suns emphatically shut it in the third quarter.
The Suns’ newest slogan is “Relentless” and my goodness me were they just that in attacking Denver’s Michael Porter Jr.
In a series full of solid, reliable players on both ends, Porter is the only negative on defense among the starters, and Phoenix made him do as much defending as possible both on and off the ball.
If that wasn’t apparent enough in the first half, when Denver started the second half with Aaron Gordon on Booker, that placed Porter on Jae Crowder. Crowder hit two 3s in the first 90 seconds of the third quarter, both off plays that forced Porter to put himself in the right position after being involved in the action.
And Crowder is not a guy that is one of the main pieces in many sets, but the Suns made sure he was with Porter on him.
The second Crowder trey bomb put the Suns up 17, and a few possessions later, it was obvious the Nuggets just didn’t have it. More defensive breakdowns ensued, to the extent of leaving Mikal Bridges wide open in the strong-side corner.
That was all while the Suns’ defense turned it up even further and made it all-out domination on both sides of the floor.
“It’s contagious, and it’s been that way from the start. You definitely don’t want to be the guy that’s out there not defending,” Booker said. “You’ll stick out like a sore thumb.”
When Jokic didn’t get a foul call with 3:30 left in the third quarter, he, Will Barton and Facundo Campazzo all laid it in to the referees, including Jokic doing so as part of his lackluster transition defense.
The game already felt over a few minutes prior to that and it was a sign the Nuggets agreed.
Paul repeated his performance from Game 1 at the opening of the fourth quarter, taking a game that was probably donezo already and definitively ending it. He scored or assisted on 13 of the Suns’ first 16 points of the quarter over 3:24 and suddenly it was a 27-point Suns lead.
His performance turned the fourth quarter into a party.
The crowd exploded with every play. They sang along to songs played at the breaks and went berserk when a child got crazy on the big screen.
“We all just looked at each other and looked around just shaking our head like, ‘This is wild,’” Craig said of that moment during a timeout.
“It got a little loud, then it got louder then it got crazy,” Paul said. “And I remember covering my ears and coach was like, ‘Chris, get back in the huddle!’”
The fans even did the wave. They chanted “Suns in 4!” They posed for pictures as live action was happening behind them on the court.
It was no surprise to see Nuggets head coach Michael Malone ripping his team postgame, because that type of stuff is predicated by poor play from the away team, to a level that is unacceptable for a playoff team in the second round.
All five Suns starters were in double figures. Paul had 17 points, five assists, and 15 assists with zero turnovers. That made it the third time he’s ever done that in a playoff game, equaling the amount of those outings by all other players in league history, per Basketball-Reference.
Phoenix got up to 18-of-38 (47.4%) from three-point range, but that was aided by a 7-for-9 effort during that fourth-quarter party. It was not any type of sharpshooting showcase that Denver couldn’t handle.
Jokic found a rhythm unlike Game 1 to 24 points, 13 rebounds and six assists but got no help. The other four Nuggets starters combined for 26 points. Porter’s shooting numbers of 3-for-13 and 2-of-9 from 3 likely means his back injury that had him questionable coming into the game is bothering him. Malone took him out early in the third quarter shortly after those Crowder 3s.
Will Barton was the only other Nugget outside of Jokic to have an impact. In his first game back since late April due to a hamstring injury, Barton scored 10 points in 16 minutes off the bench. Malone called it “embarrassing” that a guy who hadn’t played in seven weeks looked like the only Denver player leaving it all on the line. Yeesh.
The series has arrived at a point where the conversation between games becomes less about adjustments and more about potential complacency for the team with a clear edge.
As is the case with a whole lot of moments one can be a part of in the NBA, Paul has been here before.
In 2008, his New Orleans Hornets, in his own words, “beat the brakes off” the San Antonio Spurs in the first two games of a second-round series. Paul recalls looking over at the San Antonio bench and not seeing any indication the Spurs were rattled.
“They weren’t fazed. It was just one game,” Paul said.
Spurs won that series in seven games.
Paul repeated that same mantra to his team after in the locker room.
“That’s what we talk about as a team too. It’s just one game,” he said. “Now we gotta lock in, focus and get ready to go to Denver.”