Nuggets ship a strong message to Suns in Sport 1 blowout
FOX Sports NBA Analyst
Game over names.
That’s the statement the Denver Nuggets made Saturday, steamrolling the lower-seeded but more highly regarded Phoenix Suns, 125-107, to take a 1-0 second-round series lead.
The Suns rolled into Ball Arena with the playoff’s highest-scoring duo in Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, one of the reasons oddsmakers favored them to win the Western Conference title, even though the Nuggets had the best regular-season record and the back-to-back MVP in Nikola Jokic (24 points, 19 rebounds).
The No. 1 question coming into the series, though, wasn’t how will the Suns stop Jokic, but how will the Nuggets stop KD and Booker?
The Nuggets’ answer: We don’t have to.
Durant had 29 points on 63-percent shooting. Booker had 27 on 52-percent shooting. Rarely are 56 points scored that efficiently so insignificant. Utilizing balanced scoring, timely double-teams, a deeper bench and a sizable advantage in 3-point shooting, the Nuggets took a 17-point lead into halftime and never let it drop below double digits the entire second half.
“I told our guys, the pressure is all on them,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said about the Suns being favored to win the series. “No one’s picking us to win, so go out there and enjoy it.”
No one played bigger or enjoyed it more than 6-foot-3 Jamal Murray, who exuded the unbridled exuberance of someone who has had to sit and watch his team compete in the last two postseasons without him because of injury.
“Jamal just continues to add to the legend of Playoff Jamal Murray,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said. “He’s a bad man. He lives for this. When he’s locked and loaded, we know what he’s capable of.”
The last time we saw Murray was in the COVID-necessitated Orlando bubble, where he helped the Nuggets reach the Western Conference finals as its leading scorer, assist-maker and 3-point shooter.
He reprised that role in Game 1 against the Suns. His 34 points led all scorers, his nine assists led all playmakers and his 6-for-10 shooting from long range led all three-point scorers. “I’m just living my dream out here,” he said. “I missed two playoffs. I missed this type of game. It’s good to be back.”
Coach Mike Malone deserves some credit, as well. There’s a famous video of Booker at a summertime pick-up run being upset about getting double-teamed. Well, the Nuggets decided to see if he still felt that way, blitzing him for a good part of the first quarter. Booker didn’t complain, but it did make him far more passive than he was last seen going at Phoenix’s first-round opponent, the Los Angeles Clippers. After forcing a switch that left him one-on-one with Michael Porter Jr., Booker drove for a layup that Porter swatted but was called for goaltending. Booker, though, would take only one more shot over the next seven minutes, content to let Durant carry the scoring load with 15 first-quarter points.
While the Suns have plenty of room for improvement, particularly taking care of the ball after committing 16 turnovers — 14 of them steals by the Nuggets and half of those by Durant — there are some built-in advantages that it’s hard to envision the Suns overcoming. Start with a great disparity in three-point shooting. The Nuggets outscored them 48-21 from beyond the arc, and that wasn’t out of character based on how the two teams approached their first-round opponents. The Suns only averaged 23 attempts a game vs. the Clippers compared to 32 by the Nuggets against the Timberwolves. Durant and Booker combined to go 1 for 4 from long range on Saturday.
The bigger challenge will be getting past the bench disparity. Thanks to the extended garbage time, the final box score doesn’t reflect the impact of the two teams going to their subs, but Denver’s first-half burst was fueled, in part, with a combined seven points and eight rebounds from Bruce Brown, Jeff Green and Christian Braun.
Even more important is the pace that the Nuggets played at and intend to continue. They had 17 fast-break points and are well aware that Durant and Booker are 1-2 in playoff minutes played and Chris Paul is not far behind. If the Suns are going to compete in this series, their Big Three are going to have to step up — and step faster — in both directions.
“That was a point of emphasis coming into the season,” Malone said. “So no matter who we play, that’s us. But then you talk about their team and the minutes those guys are playing, we want to get out and run and attack. That’s when we’re at our best.”
Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.
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