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The Phoenix Suns head back to their home arena trailing 0-2 as they prepare to host the Denver Nuggets in Game Three of the Western Conference Semifinals Friday.
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Game Two put a screeching halt to the high-scoring eccentrics that the Suns and Nuggets have become so familiar with during the NBA Playoffs. The halftime score read 42-40 in favor of the Suns and marked a season-low in first-half scoring for the trailing Denver team. Jamal Murray, the hero of Game One, was particularly ineffective.
The second half was more reminiscent of the first game of the series. Denver kept its defensive intensity that has been a revelation in the postseason and also created strong scoring looks, mostly for Nikola Jokic, through the pick and roll. Kevin Durant also looked like the heavy minutes that he played in the opening round had caught up with him as he had his most inefficient game of the playoffs by far.
Chris Paul was injured with just under five minutes left in the third quarter and did not return with what has been labeled groin tightness. He has been ruled out for at least games three, four, and five, continuing an unfortunate trend of missing playoff games because of various injuries. His absence was particularly noticeable down the stretch as the Nuggets outscored the Suns by 14 over the final quarter and a half.
Jokic had his first outstanding game of the series despite the final score only ending 97-87. The two-time MVP finished with 39 points, 16 rebounds, and five assists, and was able to steer his team to victory despite the next-highest scorer, Aaron Gordon, only posting 16 points. Murray ended up with 10 points (3-15 FG) and eight assists.
Devin Booker was phenomenal once again and ended Game Two with 35 points, six assists, and five rebounds. Durant, on the other hand, was forcing shots but could not find his jumper, which caused him to finish with 24 points (10-27 FG, 2-12 3PT) and eight rebounds. Deandre Ayton had a near-identical output to Game One with 14 points and eight assists as he was once again dominated by Jokic.
Phoenix’s already-glaring lack of bench depth was at an all-time worst in Game Two. The six reserves that saw the court combined to score a measly four points on 2-16 shooting. What’s worse, one of those players, presumably Cameron Payne, will be inserted into the starting lineup in Paul’s absence, leaving them even thinner on the back end. Denver only managed 13 bench points, but it still felt like their depth was far superior to Phoenix's.
Only 33 of 446 teams (7.4%) that have fallen behind 0-2 in the playoffs go on to win the series. That discouraging outlook is made even worse by what has actually transpired on the court—the Suns have not gotten unlucky or fallen short in the dying moments, they have run into a superior opponent that is capitalizing on their deficiencies.
With that being said, Phoenix should be confident heading into Game Three. Booker and Durant were able to rest three full days after spending the first part of the series at altitude and immediately after playing the most and second-most minutes in the playoffs in round one. Getting them back to fresh legs is just about the Suns’ only shot-in-the-dark hope of mounting a comeback, barring injuries or unexpected shooting slumps.
Phoenix does not have a ton of postseason success but is a proud group. Booker has also been arguably the best player in the playoffs thus far, while Durant is capable of hitting a higher level than any player in the series. Game Three figures to bring the best out of those stars back in front of the Suns’ faithful for the first time this series.
The Suns can win Game Three if and only if Booker and Durant are truly excellent, and their defensive intensity spreads to their teammates. Phoenix knew it was giving up its depth in training for Durant, but the bench has been even worse than expected. It’s going to have to be a total two-man show for them to progress out of this round, and that starts with avoiding the sweep.
The Nuggets have unlocked a new level of defensive discipline and desire that was totally absent during the regular season. They have vaulted from 15th in regular-season defensive rating to fourth in the playoffs and have held up against the Suns’ star pairing. Assuming Jokic and Murray aren’t both horrible, they will win games maintaining that desire and their usual selfless offense.
If there is going to be a “not on my watch game” from the Booker-Durant combo, it is going to be Game Three. At the same time, there is an argument that they have already had those games in both rounds of the playoffs and still ended up on the losing side.
Denver’s consistency and depth, however, are far more enticing prospects, so getting them with a few points is too much to pass up on. Nuggets +3.5 is the strongest play for Game Three.
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Grant is a sports and sports betting journalist who prides himself on delivering breaking news and insightful analyses of the industry. Grant graduated from Virginia Tech in 2021 and is feverishly pursuing his ambitions in the sports betting field.
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