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The Denver Nuggets will take a 1-0 series lead into a Monday evening matchup against the Phoenix in the Western Conference Semifinals.
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Game One got off to a rip-roaring start. Both teams shot extremely high percentages and it seemed as if every game was going to go over the given line. Then, in the second half, the Nuggets’ teamwork and the takeover ability of Jamal Murray became too much for the Suns’ thin rotation to handle.
All Phoenix players not named Kevin Durant and Devin Booker with a shocking lack of energy, which was even more unexpected since Durant and Booker played the most and second-most minutes per game in the first round of the playoffs. Deandre Ayton was especially lethargic and lacked mental focus rebounding the ball, guarding Nikola Jokic, and committing to setting screens.
Denver went 34-7 at home during the regular season and played like it knew that it needed to defend its home court to have a shot at winning the series.
As sound of a win as the Nuggets had in Game One, it was not perfect—the Suns still shot 51.2% from the field and attempted more free throws than the home team. Head coach Mike Malone will have highlighted that during his Game Two preparations.
Murray led the game in scoring with 34 points (6-10 3PT) and added in nine assists. Reigning two-time MVP, Jokic, went for 24 points, 19 rebounds, and five assists, while Aaron Gordon had an ultra-efficient 23 points (9-13 FG, 3-4 3PT). There was lots of talk heading into the series about whether or not the Nuggets’ big three could hang with the Suns, and they went above and beyond in Game One.
The Suns were unsurprisingly led by Durant (29 points, 14 rebounds) and Booker (27 points, eight assists). Ayton was the next-leading scorer with 14 points and seven rebounds but had a game-worst plus/minus and was totally dominated by Jokic. The bench, which averaged the third-fewest points of any playoff bench unit in 40 years in the first round, was also terrible as per usual.
The Suns only attempted five three-pointers in the first half of Game One. They finished shooting 7-23 (30.45) from long range, but a majority of those were not “good shots.” Denver, on the other hand, went 16-37 (43.2%) and also won the rebounding and turnover battles, which is a formula for success in the modern NBA.
The Nuggets did an outstanding job with their defensive assignments in Game One. They mostly left Jokic in drop coverage but allowed him to step up to direct the Suns’ ball-handlers into undesirable areas of the court. They also brought double-teams on Booker and Durant, mostly when the other was not on the court.
The Suns’ stars were always going to have to carry the load, but it now seems as if that is being pushed to the limit. Durant and Booker need to combine for 65+ points and be the two best defenders on the court just for them to have a chance. They are capable and already showed that in Round One but are facing a polished, well-drilled team that will capitalize on any small mistake.
Game Two will be a test of the Suns’ resilience. They are already playing lethargically and are back at altitude for Game Two before they can head back to the desert. This is also Denver’s best-ever chance to make the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history, and they will not go quietly.
The Nuggets need to continue with their mastery of the pick-and-roll with Murray and Jokic to keep the Suns’ defense off-balance and scrambling. They also need to survive minutes during which Jokic is off the court which, to their credit, they did in Game One. They also need to come up with the 50-50 balls and win the rebounding battle to limit Phoenix’s second-chance opportunities.
The Suns need to hope that Durant and Booker are still fresh in Game Two and give them any kind of support they can from the rest of the roster. Coach Monty Williams may explore reinserting Cam Payne into the rotation to add another playmaker and shooter onto the court to take the burden off of their shoulders and to stretch the defense out since the other rotational players have not commanded Denver’s respect.
As dominant as the Nuggets’ win was, the Suns still shot better than 51% from the field. They are a slight adjustment to mental focus away from keeping that game competitive and one defensive recalibration away from putting Game Two back onto a neutral playing field. The Nuggets could definitely win Game Two, but the Suns’ spread is the strongest play for Game Two.
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