Did this really happen again? Yes. Yes it did. For the second year in a row, Finals favorite Phoenix Suns stepped up to an elimination game at home and completely, abjectly flopped.
Sorry, Al McCoy. Sorry you had to finish your illustrious career calling these last two season-ending home games.
The Suns season is over, losing 125-100 to the Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets now move on to the Western Conference Finals. The Suns go home as second-round losers once again.
The home team actually took an early lead, 24-21, as Cam Payne made a three pointer. But then the dam broke as Denver went on a 23-2 run — with Devin Booker and Kevin Durant ON the floor alongside three subs — and the Suns never threatened again. Payne finished with his best shooting game of the season, 31 points on 12 of 16 shooting.
“It’s deflating,” Suns coach Monty Williams said of seeing the team letting the Nuggets score at will. “That’s on me.”
He admitted he couldn’t wrap his head around losing two years in a row like this.
“I take that personally not having our team ready to play in the biggest game of the year,” he admitted, saying he will have to evaluate himself first for what has happened two years in a row. “You look at yourself. That’s what I’m doing right now.”
Back to the game.
Down as much as 30 for most of the second quarter, diehard fans let the players know their displeasure, booing early, long and often. These are great fans too. No one left at the half, and when the Suns cut the lead to ‘only’ 23 early in the third quarter on Cam Payne’s 6th three of the night, they erupted with excited cheers.
But this was not the Suns night. Not in any way, shape or form. Not for the Suns stars anyway. Chris Paul missed his 4th straight game (groin). Deandre Ayton missed the game as well (bruised rib). Devin Booker and Kevin Durant played, but folded. Maybe due to fatigue as they lead all players in minutes this postseason, and maybe due to playing two on five on offense.
Booker’s fall was once again the most head-scratching of all. He’d been the best player in the entire playoffs, leading all scorers with 35.7 points per game, plus 7.1 assists...up until the last two games. He failed to deliver, especially in the elimination game. At halftime, Booker only had only 12 points on 4 of 12 shooting. In the third quarter, he took only 1 shot (missed). By the end of three, he’d played 33 of the 36 minutes and scored only 12 points.
Booker now has played in 3 elimination games from 2021-23 and lost all of them. He’s delivered 19, 11 and 12 points on less than 35% shooting. Rumors had him nursing undisclosed issues each time (hamstring, COVID, foot), but a pattern is a pattern. There’s no getting around it.
It’s not all on Booker to be sure. His top teammates failed to deliver in those elimination games too, especially the last two years. Even now, 2021 First-Team All-NBA and one of the best players in league history, Kevin Durant, scored only 2 points in the first quarter on 0-of-4 shooting and had only 8 at halftime on 2-of-11 shooting.
And for the second straight year, the Suns defense melted down. The league’s 3rd ranked defense during the 2021 regular season fell to dead last in the second round against Dallas. The league’s 7th ranked defense in the 2022 regular season fell to dead last in the second round against Denver.
These are patterns that usually result in complete roster, coaching and even front office overhauls.
Suns team President of Basketball Operation James Jones might have won Executive of the Year in 2021 and was lauded for helping complete the Kevin Durant trade this year, but he’s got to be on the chopping block for having a back end of the roster so bereft of playable playoff talent.
Suns coach Monty Williams might have won Coach of the Year in 2021 (peers) and 2022 (media), but he’s the orchestrator of these defensive collapses and his team not once but twice come out dead flat in a home elimination game.
Chris Paul might have been a two-time All-NBA point guard for the Suns, but has regressed and can’t stop getting injured. Deandre Ayton got a max contract extension, but has regressed so badly his own critics are at least a little bit surprised. They’re both going to get more than $30 million salaries next year unless the Suns can find better value in trade.
Landry Shamet makes way too much money for what he delivers. Cam Payne, only a small guarantee, can’t stay healthy or consistent enough to be Paul’s backup.
Everyone else is a free agent and will almost certainly be gone.
Take a breath, Suns fans. The summer will be seem really long, waiting for these changes to take place.
Oh, did you want to see how everything fell apart in the first half? Settle in and read on...
Welp, this is your starting lineup in an elimination game. Deandre Ayron (rib) and Chris Paul (groin) are OUT for this game and might not suit up for the Suns again.
- Jock Landale: 0 playoff starts, this year averaging 5 points in 13.8 mpg
- Landry Shamet: 10 playoff starts, all in first 2 seasons, averaged 7.7 points in 29 mpg
- Cam Payne: 5 playoff starts total, 3 this year averaging 6.4 points in 28 mpg
Tough to swallow, but that’s the way it is when your third and fourth best players are out injured and you’ve got little depth behind them.
The game started with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Michael Porter Jr. driving into the paint for 3 scores in their first three possessions. The Suns, meanwhile, started with three deep shots, making only 1 of them.
Yet somehow the undermanned Suns took a 9-8 lead as Jokic clearly planned to run the offense from the high point of three-point arc and his teammates missed shots.
Payne was active early with 7 of the Suns first 11 points. Shamet finally made a three on his third wide open chance, to give the Suns a 14-13 lead, but a Jokic drive and Landale turnover became four quick Denver points to force a timeout.
16 of Denver’s first 19 points are in the paint, including 8 from KCP who is getting open because the Suns are guarding everyone else.
Cam Payne helped the Suns take a 24-21 lead on a 4-4 shooting start, but then Nikola Jokic got his second offensive rebound off his own miss — he’s so big! — and Kevin Durant missed a few inside shots to let the Nuggets go on a 6-0 run.
Without Ayton, the Suns foul-happy big men just HAVE to figure out how to defend without fouling and, well, Jock had 2 fouls in his first stint. Here comes Bis, to commit two fouls in his first minutes. That’s the Suns ONLY TWO BIG MEN, already with 2 fouls each. Jokic can just feast. He’s already up to 8/4/3 in his first 10 minutes.
The heros of the first quarter: KCP for Denver with 15 points on 6-7 shooting, and Cameron Payne with 10 on 4-4 shooting.
Unfortunately, after that 24-21 Suns lead, Denver ended the quarter on a 23-2 run over the final 4:52 of the quarter to take a 44-26 lead after one. Stars Devin Booker and Kevin Durant finished the quarter with a TOTAL of 7 points on 2 of 12 shooting. The rest of the Suns shot 8-13 from the field. The Suns gave up 44 points at home in the first quarter in an elimination game.
The second quarter didn’t get any better. Denver scored on 14 straight possessions to take a 50-30 lead, only to blow it on a missed fast break dunk (Jeff Green) off yet another Suns turnover. Torrey Craig (-19), Bismack Biyombo (-19) and Terrence Ross (-17) had... what’s the word... let’s be kind... poor shifts on the court. T.J. Warren was ‘only’ -10 in his 4 minute stint.
In the second quarter, the Suns fought back a bit, thanks to Cameron Payne’s hot shooting and Booker stepping it up a bit, but the Suns defense was just so bad Denver never struggled. For the Suns, getting a stop was a once-every-five-minutes thing, and that’s not going to cut it.
The Suns at one point got the Denver lead ‘down’ to 15, but a Jokic-led push ran it back up to 26 in the blink of an eye.
Kevin Durant didn’t help anything, missing 9 of his first 10 shots and committing several turnovers (although they only recorded one on him) forcing his way into a mid-range shot despite Denver turning four heads at a time toward him on the shot attempt. He had only 2 assists in this stretch.
At the half, the Suns were down 30. Just like last year in their second round elimination game.