What: Denver Nuggets (2-0) at Phoenix Suns (0-2), Western Conference Semifinals
When: 7:00 PM Friday night
Where: Footprint Center, Phoenix, AZ
Listen: 98.7 FM
Devin Booker is facing an 0-2 deficit for the first time in his playoff basketball career (of 8 playoff series) and he’s all about it.
“We have to embrace it. Embrace the challenge, even down 0-2,” Booker said after the loss in Game 2. “Get back home, protect our home court, and go from there.”
“You have to believe it. See it,” coach Monty Williams said after practice on Wednesday. “But you also have to be determined to do the things necessary to help you win the game. We have to be more disciplined within the areas that are really good for us, and not wane or dissipate. Yeah you have to embrace this for sure.”
The Denver Nuggets protected their home court in Games 1 and 2. Game 1 saw Jamal Murray as the best player on the court. Game 2 saw Nikola Jokic take that lead. Now in Game 3, that best player needs to Devin Booker or Kevin Durant.
Booker is having his best playoff run ever, draining 35.4 points per game over 7 games (+8.1 over 2021) on incredible 57/46/87 shooting splits, plus a playoff-best 6.6 assists per game (+2.1 over 2021).
In two ‘deficit’ games so far this postseason (0-1 versus Clippers, 0-1 vs Nuggets), he has put up 38/9 and 35/6. The Suns are going to need that, or more.
Kevin Durant is putting up 27.9 points on 50/36/96 splits, along with 8.6 rebounds and 5.0 assists, but he’s been too quiet. He needs to become loud — not with his voice but with his game. He needs to remind people he’s Kevin freaking Durant.
And everyone else on the Suns needs to buckle up, strap in, and GO. They’ve all come up short so far this series, and it’s time to turn it around. There’s no more room for error. No room for ‘my bad’. No room for fear of the moment.
Luckily, the Suns are back home with their fans for support.
“We have some of the greatest fans in the world,” coach Williams said after the Game 2 loss. “And we need them when we get back there because we have a chance to even this thing up on our home court.”
“We at the crib. We home. We in The Valley,” new starting point guard Cam Payne said with a smile after practice on Wednesday.
Payne will be needed to fill in for Chris Paul, who suffered a groin strain in the third quarter of Game 2, and is not expected back until later in the series.
Probable Starting Lineups
- Denver: None reported
- Suns: Chris Paul (groin strain) is DAY TO DAY, but expected to miss at least a week
The Suns made a huge trade this year to improve their top-end talent at the expense of some mid-rotation talent. The idea was that the Suns lacked enough guys who could get their own shot in crunch time no matter what the other team throws at them. That hope worked when the Clippers threw everything AND the kitchen sink on defense, but Booker and Durant made too many shots anyway.
That hope failed on Monday night in Game 2, when the Suns went cold in the fourth quarter and allowed a Nuggets comeback win to take a 2-0 series lead. The Suns as a team made only 7 of 25 shots in that fourth quarter (0-9 on threes), and Kevin Durant and Devin Booker were the biggest culprits. Here’s the breakdown.
- Devin Booker 2-for-8 (0-2 on threes)
- Durant: 4-for-10 (0-3 on threes)
- Rest of team: 1-for-7 (0-4 on threes)
Sure, it’s only one game. But that was a big game. If Durant can’t make all the tough shots in the 4th quarter of big games, the whole point of the big trade falls apart.
In fact, these two Suns teams — the 2022 and 2023 — are incredibly, weirdly, strikingly similar year over year in the playoffs so far.
() = rank among 16 playoff teams
Not only has Kevin Durant not fulfilled Suns fans, management and ownership’s dreams quite yet, the supporting cast has come up even shorter than even the pessimists had expected.
Josh Okogie looks afraid to shoot. So does Landry Shamet. Cam Payne isn’t afraid, he’s just out of rhythm at the worst time. Torrey Craig is always hot or cold, and right now he’s cold after a hot first round. Damion Lee is ice cold too.
The problem here is that no one besides Booker, Paul and Durant can even say they were consistently good in both the first and second round, if they were any good in either.
And if you polled Suns fans back in late February who the Suns best bench players should be come playoff time, I’m pretty sure they would have cited T.J. Warren and Terrence Ross. Yet, Warren and Ross never earned the trust of the Suns coaching staff, created lots of leaks in the Suns defense, and have barely taken off their sweat pants in seven games.
Now, with the Suns down 0-2 with their table-setting point guard sidelined, the coaches might have to turn to them for scoring and “live with the warts that come with that”, as the coach says.
What you see in Game 3 might not look very much like what you saw in Denver. Let’s hope that’s for the better.
Everything is going according to plan for the Nuggets. They said all along that all they needed was their guys to get healthy and they’d go on another deep playoff run. The last time Jokic, Murray and Michael Porter Jr. were healthy in the playoffs at the same time was the 2020 Bubble run, where they made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals.
Let’s take a look back. The Nuggets had a great year, finishing 46-27 in the pandemic-shortened 72-game season. That got them the 3rd seed in the West.
In the first round, they beat the 6th-seeded Utah Jazz in 7 epic games where Murray and Donovan Mitchell exchanged 50-point games like it was a baton. Mitchell had 57 in Game 1 and 51 in Game 4, while Murray had 42 in Game 5 and 50 in Game 6. The Nuggets had been down 3-1, but stormed back with 3 straight victories — the last one sealed by a missed open three by Mike Conley at the buzzer — to win the series in seven games. Crazy stuff!
In the second round, they beat the 2nd-seeded Clippers in 7 epic games where they ONCE AGAIN overcame a self-created 3-1 deficit to win the final three games. That series will be remembered as the last and only healthy playoff run by the newly created Clippers, who’d mortgaged their future for a tandem of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard.
The Nuggets’ magic ran out in the Conference Finals in 5 quick games at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers, whose own future-mortgaging trade for Anthony Davis to pair with an aging LeBron James was about to pay off with a ring.
I remind you of the Nuggets last healthy playoff run for two reasons. One: that’s a damn good team when they’ve got all those guys together, especially the Murray/Jokic tandem. Two: a team with only two stars can come back from deficits and win playoff games, no matter how suspect the guys around them. Torrey Craig was a contributor on that 2020 Nuggets team, folks.
This year’s Nuggets are better than that 2020 Conference Finals team. Murray and Jokic are better. Jokic hadn’t even won an MVP yet. Michael Porter Jr. is better. Aaron Gordon is a big upgrade over Jerami Grant. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is much better than Monte Morris. Bruce Brown is better than Gary Harris.
The Suns probably won’t come all the way back from this 0-2 hole, and it won’t be because of the failures of the Suns front office.
It’s tough to sweep a playoff series. The Suns will be jacked up. The fans will be jacked up in support of the Suns. It’s easier to hit shots at home. The Nuggets are below average (20-23, including playoffs) on the road, and they have a 2-0 series lead in their back pocket.
The Suns need to win this game, whatever it takes.