The moment Torrey Craig threw down a two-handed alley-oop dunk, the roof popped off inside Phoenix Suns Arena.
The Suns — on a 14-5 fourth-quarter run at the time against the Denver Nuggets — had exploded in the second half. Their spurt leading up to Craig’s slam was part of a grander 39-12 spurt dating back to 7:34 left in the third, when they trailed 72-63 and had little moving in their favor.
Building a 102-84 lead with 8:36 to go, Phoenix’s eruption had all but enveloped Denver. With an announced 16,219 fans in attendance, the Suns danced on the sideline, had spectators bouncing off each other and their building overflowing with palpable energy. It was a spectacle that Phoenix — and the national audience — loved to see.
But more importantly, the buildup to the Suns’ second-half outburst in their 122-105 win over the Nuggets in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals on Monday night showed just how dangerous they can be. Craig blew the top off, but Phoenix’s starters set the stage with each scoring in double figures, including four who exceeded 20 points.
“It’s team basketball, that’s what the playoffs is,” said Suns starting shooting guard Devin Booker, who had 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting and eight assists. “Teams aren’t going to let your first, second and third option get it going every night. They try to take that away and make the other guys do it, and I think that benefits us with the talent that we have on this team, the depth that we have on this team and just the playmaking ability of everybody.”
Denver’s approach on Monday night was no different than the Suns faced throughout the season. The Nuggets blitzed high ball screens on Booker and starting point guard Chris Paul, forcing them to make uncomfortable passes and their teammates to become scoring threats.
The strategy worked in the first half. As a team, Phoenix shot 21-of-46 (45.7 percent) from the field, its lowest first-half clip since its Game 4 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. It was also 7-of-21 from 3-point range and could not get out in transition, scoring just five points on two Denver turnovers.
The Suns also gave up big Nuggets runs to start each of the first three quarters, including a 14-6 spurt at the beginning of the third to give them their 72-63 edge. Phoenix needed a collective effort to break that slump, something that started outside of Booker and Paul.
Nuggets' runs to start each quarter tonight:— Trevor Booth (@TrevorMBooth) June 8, 2021
PHX down 72-63 with 7:12 left in the third.
The Suns got it from a player who is not used to creating his own offense — starting forward Mikal Bridges. Against the Lakers, he scored 76.4 percent of his field goals without taking a dribble and had 60 percent of his shots come from catch-and-shoot opportunities. But on Monday, he had 13 of his team-high 23 points in the third quarter on 5-of-5 shooting, with two of those looks coming off plays in which he was forced to put the ball on the floor.
Bridges had eight straight Suns points after they trailed 67-58 with 8:43 left in the third and five of their last 11 points to end the period. He finished with a usage rate of 19.3 percent — one of just five times this season in which he exceeded 19 percent in the statistic — and had his highest points-per-shot attempt of any of those games, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Wrote before the series on how Mikal Bridges would be the X-Factor for the #Suns this series with his defense on MPJ and ability to play off Paul and Booker. Has PHX's last 8, including this 3-point play.— Trevor Booth (@TrevorMBooth) June 8, 2021
PHX down 72-66, 6:21 left in the third. pic.twitter.com/PJgo0YaYs2
“I just thought he had really good balance tonight,” said Suns coach Monty Williams. “He only got 12 shots and he had 23 points, he had five assists too. So for a guy we don’t call too many plays for, that’s a pretty efficient night.”
Bridges’ aggression made things easier for his teammates, especially Booker. He was forced to take on more of a playmaking role in the first half, contributing five of his eight assists while working hard to get open for his four makes on seven attempts. Even though the Suns had 57 points and Paul also added seven assists, it was clear that they needed continued shotmaking from everyone to win.
Bridges’ impact made that happen. Booker made all three of his shot attempts in the fourth quarter, and Paul single-handedly ceased the game for the Suns in the period with 14 points of his 21 points on 6-of-6 shooting, including a stretch in which he had 10 consecutive points. Phoenix won the fourth quarter 34 to 26 and Booker and Paul had 20 of those points, opportunities that would not have come without Bridges opening the floor.
“If you try to take one of us out or whatnot, we make the right play,” Paul said. “Who are you going to leave open? Mikal is cash, (starting forward) Jae (Crowder) is cash, I could keep going on and on.”
Not to be forgotten, Crowder came through with six of his 14 points in the second half, including a 3-pointer to cut the Suns’ deficit to 72-71 with 4:58 left in the third quarter and another triple to extend their lead to 114-97 with 3:34 to go in the fourth. Starting center Deandre Ayton contributed 20 points on 9-of-13 shooting and 10 rebounds, arguably outplaying Denver Nuggets center and MVP candidate Nikola Jokic, who had 22 points on 10-of-23 shooting.
Collectively, the Suns held Jokic without a point on two shot attempts in the fourth quarter and turned five Denver turnovers into nine points in the second half, enabling their transition pace that has benefited them throughout the playoffs.
“They missed some shots, but I felt like our defense, as I said before, the communication, went up a level,” Williams said. “We started talking earlier in situations, and that allowed for us to get stops and then play in transition. But I thought (assistant coach) Willie Green did a really good job of calming the waters, talking to our guys about, ‘If we can get some consecutive stops and start playing defense the way that we know we can, maybe we can get out in transition, especially if we can get some live-ball turnovers or rebound the ball.’”
Phoenix won the rebounding battle 44-18, including a 21-18 edge in the second half, and held the Nuggets to 22 points in the paint in the second half after they had 30 in the first.
The Suns’ win moved them another step closer toward their goal of winning a championship. Based on how multiple players contributed, that objective seems more and more like a reality.
Monday’s Game 1 win was an outbreak of the Suns at their best. They hope it will have carryover effects for Game 2 and beyond.
“We just got to keep playing hard, keep playing our way,” Bridges said.