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‘Stick to what we do’: Suns outlast Nuggets in third quarter (again!), continue to show poise

For a team without much playoff experience, Phoenix is looking like a veteran unit with its recent second-half play

NBA: Playoffs-Phoenix Suns at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

After a running hook from Nikola Jokic, the Denver Nuggets appeared to be in a key position to get a stop and cut further into the Phoenix Suns’ lead. Until they weren’t.

On the Suns’ next possession, starting shooting guard Devin Booker took an off-balance shot that clanked off the rim and fell in the vicinity of three Denver players. Only, they didn’t get it. Phoenix starting center Deandre Ayton dove to the floor, corralled the basketball and shoveled it back to Booker, who calmly stepped back to the 3-point line and buried a corner triple.

The Suns re-extended their advantage at the time to 76-66 with 4:14 left in the third quarter. Denver, pacing for a run, was instead repulsed by Phoenix. The Nuggets’ crowd, pulsing at a reported nearly-full capacity, was flatlined on a night it was once filled with energy by Jokic receiving his Most Valuable Player trophy.

Denver made one final run at cutting into Phoenix’s edge, making five consecutive shots after Booker’s 3-pointer. But the Suns ultimately made timely responses and ran away with a 116-102 victory over the Nuggets in Game 3 of their Western Conference semifinal series on Friday night at Ball Arena.

Phoenix is now one win away from its first berth to the Western Conference Finals since 2009-10, when it last made the postseason, and has an opportunity to close out the Nuggets in Game 4 on Sunday at 5 p.m. MT.

“We talked about it this morning, having a great deal of poise and balance mentally,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “On their home floor, they’re going to have runs. But I thought we just played with a relentless attitude tonight — that’s been who we are, who we have been all season long.”

The Suns’ third-quarter outbursts have been a common theme in this series. On Friday, they outscored the Nuggets 31-21, allowing them to take a 14-point lead into the fourth that they built to as large as 20.

In Games 1 and 2, Phoenix had a combined plus-19 differential in the third quarter, giving it similar opportunities to take over in the fourth. In fact, the Suns have led by double digits in all but 24 seconds in the fourth quarter in every game this round.

It has been a trend that Williams has attributed to two common denominators — defense and energy.

“The guys are just making plays for each other, playing with a great deal of energy and force and at the end (offensively), the spacing that we had when they were blitzing, we were getting open threes and looks at the rim,” Williams said. “Those are the things that we work on in practice, so I’m glad we have those kinds of leads in the second half.”

After the Nuggets cut the Suns’ lead to 82-74 with 1:59 left in the third quarter, Phoenix called timeout and forced misses on four of Denver’s next five possessions. The Suns made their final four shots to end the period — including back-to-back 3-pointers from backup point guard Cameron Payne and backup forward Cameron Johnson — and built a 90-76 lead that appeared to put a vice grip on the Nuggets.

Once Phoenix went on a 6-0 run to start the fourth quarter — capped off by a Dario Saric layup plus a foul — the game was seemingly out of reach for Denver.

“We’re having fun with it,” Booker said. “We’re playing for each other. When things get tough, we come together even more.”

For the second straight game, Booker led Phoenix in scoring with 28 points on 11-of-23 shooting and had six rebounds and four assists. He had 11 of his points in the third quarter, including his key corner 3-pointer and a one-handed bank shot to give the Suns a 14-point edge to end the period.

All five of Phoenix’s starters eclipsed double figures in scoring for the third straight game, adding to their strong display of balance this series. The Suns also assisted 38 of their 43 made shots and shot above 38 percent from 3-point range for the fourth straight contest.

“I said it last game, when guys come out, we tag in,” starting point guard Chris Paul said. “Me and Book was talking about it after the game, (backup point guard) Cam Payne hit the stepback 3 (-pointer), (backup forward) Cam Johnson hit the 3. We really play as a team and we’ve built that trust over the season. It’s a fun way to play.”

Paul, who recorded a 15-point, 15-assist, zero-turnover game for the third time in his playoff career in Game 2 on Wednesday, had another strong individual outing with 27 points on 9-of-16 shooting along with eight assists and six rebounds. He had 16 of his points and eight of his assists in the second half, including an assortment of mid-range jumpers to break the Nuggets’ spirit.

In this series, Paul has totaled 30 fourth-quarter points while shooting a combined 12-of-13 from the field, including 4-of-4 from 3-point range, with eight assists and zero turnovers. It’s been a factor the Suns have not taken for granted.

“I love it,” Booker said of Paul’s fourth-quarter output. “That takes the pressure off, it creates open shots for everybody. I think the tandem of us both being able to do that and create for other people at the same time makes it a tough coverage for the defense, and that’s that. That’s been the story of the season for us and we know we’re going to stick with it.”

After the game, Booker said in an interview with ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt that the Suns are “peaking at the right time.” He then paused and changed his answer, saying they’re “getting better as games go on.”

Phoenix has a total win margin of plus-99 over its last five games and is executing at a high level on both ends. Williams said he was pleased with the Suns’ “great deal of poise” in Game 3, especially in a road environment where Jokic received his MVP award and had a monster night statistically with 32 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists.

Considering their youth and relative inexperience, poise from the Suns in key moments has been a surprise for many to see. It hasn’t been for their coaches and players, who say this is a continuation of who they have been all year long.

“That’s what we do,” said starting center Deandre Ayton. “We stick to what we do best, stuck to our coverages. We played as a unit together, we made sure we emphasized togetherness tonight. We know we’re here in a great city, great arena as well, it was loud. But just having your brothers’ back and staying focused was the main thing.”

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