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Suns can quell doubts about closing abilities, but face a few obstacles

The Phoenix Suns will face elimination in Game 6 at home on Thursday night.

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2023 NBA Playoffs - Phoenix Suns v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

The Phoenix Suns lost Game 5 to the Denver Nuggets and now face elimination in Game 6 on Thursday night.

Every single NBA playoff team has faced at least one elimination game in the past three seasons, but only the 2021 Milwaukee Bucks got themselves in that position during a championship run. The Bucks, that year, had to win Game 6 and Game 7 of the second round against Kevin Durant’s Nets to stay alive before winning the Conference Finals and Finals in six games apiece.

Neither the 2020 Los Angeles Lakers nor the 2022 Golden State Warriors had to deal with a win-or-go-home game in their title runs. The Lakers in 2020 beat the Blazers, Rockets and Nuggets all in 5 games, then the Heat in 6. The Warriors in 2022 beat the Nuggets 4-1, Grizzlies 4-2, Mavericks 4-1 and Celtics 4-2.

Every other playoff team in the last three years has faced, and lost, at least one elimination game.

The Phoenix Suns are 0-2 in elimination games the past three years, and face at least one more this week against Denver. They are 0-1 at home in elimination games (2022) and 0-1 on the road (2021).

Now, the Suns are down 3-2 and their next loss in this series will send them home for another too-long offseason to ponder their future.

Just like the last two years, the Suns entered this postseason with sky high hopes. None of this “happy to be here” stuff. Championship or bust. In 2021, they made good till the Finals. In 2022, they fell hard in the second round.

In both of those losing rounds, the Suns had built a 2-0 series lead at home, only to lose either four straight or four in five games as the underdog got to play 3 of 4 at home in the middle of the series to gain momentum.

This time is different, at least through five games. This time, the Suns are the underdog who took it on the chin in Game 1 and 2 as an underdog is expected to do. This time, the Suns are the ones who’ve used their home games to breathe life back into their chances of winning.

Now the Suns have to do what the Bucks and Mavericks did to them. They have to seize the home crowd energy to pull out a Game 6 victory. And they’ll have to win one one on the road to tip the scales of the series, like the Bucks did in Game 5 and the Mavericks did in Game 7.

But make no mistake a lot is working against the Suns.

Booker’s foot

Devin Booker is suddenly dealing with a foot injury suffered at the end of the first quarter when he landed hard on the foot after being fouled on the fast break. He says he’s “fine” and played through it, but Booker’s numbers tell a different tale:

  • Before injury: 12 minutes, 12 points (4-5 shooting), 2 assists
  • After injury: 29 minutes, 16 points (4-15 shooting), 4 assists

Booker has answered the call in ‘deficit’ games this year, scoring 47 and 36 points on 79% shooting in Games 3 and 4 to pull the Suns back even in this series, but in prior seasons he’s come up short in elimination games while dealing with one injury or another.

In 2021, he played through a hamstring pull and scored just 19 points on 8-22 shooting in Game 6 of the Finals. In 2022, he scored just 11 points on 3 of 14 shooting in Game 7 against the Mavericks.

The Suns are going to need the very best of Devin Booker if they’re going to win any more games in these playoffs.

Chris Paul’s groin/absence

“I have no idea, man, but that’s not the one you rush,” Booker said of Paul’s groin.

Paul pulled his groin in the middle of the third quarter of Game 2 and was set to ‘re-evaluated’ a week later. Yet, Booker knows first-hand you don’t rush back with a groin injury because you’re limited in movement and could easily pull it again on any sudden movement.

Without Chris Paul, the Suns are basically 2-2 in this series (they lost an 8-point lead in Game 2, won 3 and 4 at home, then lost Game 5), but Paul’s absence clearly makes the Suns a worse team.

The Suns will evaluate Paul today, but don’t hold your breath on his quick return.

Deandre Ayton’s poor play

I don’t know what’s happening here. In his first playoff run as a 22-year old, Ayton averaged 14.3 points (61% shooting) and 10.5 rebounds, while helping to contain Nikola Jokic to the extent that both teams admitted Ayton had a major influence on the series to help the Suns sweep. But this year, as a more-mature 24 year old in his third playoff run, Ayton is having by far the worst playoff series of his career, averaging only 10.8 points (57% shooting) and 8.2 rebounds.

Meanwhile Jokic is having by far the best playoff series of his career, averaging 35 points on 57.5% shooting with 13.8 rebounds and 10 assists per game in 38.6 minutes per game. All of those stats are career highs for any playoff series (10 total) except for rebounds, which is 0.1 shy of his 13.9 career high against Portland in 2019.

Now, Ayton is dealing with a rib injury suffered when he got kneed by Bruce Brown on a drive to the rim in the first quarter. A few plays later, he didn’t make much effort to close out on Michael Porter Jr.’s three point attempt. “Yeah, I couldn’t even lift my hand up,” he told Dana Scott of “I had my breath it was just hurting a little bit.” Ayton was seen wincing several times throughout the game.

Ayton played through the injury, and had it wrapped during postgame interviews.

Now the Suns need to answer the call at home, and hopefully in a very different way than they handled the elimination game at home last year when they failed to show up and lost by 33 to the Mavericks.

“It’s the playoffs, man, you gotta get up” Ayton said, brushing off the injury. “It’s the playoffs, I love it man. They did their job at home, and we gotta handle ours at home.”

Booker talks of embracing it, and doing “whatever it takes” to win.

“We have all the answers to the test now,” Booker said. “All the game plan stuff comes out the window. It’s just a dogfight and you have to be ready to go.”

The Suns will play Game 6 at home in Phoenix at Footprint Center on Thursday night at 7:00PM. A win would force a deciding Game 7 back in Denver. A loss would begin a long summer vacation.

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