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Rapid Recap: Phew! Suns win 121-114 over Denver, get right back in the series, behind Booker’s 47

The Phoenix Suns needed this win badly, yet they counted on their bench more than they had all playoffs to get it

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

Phew. The Phoenix Suns won’t get swept. They win Game 3 against the Denver Nuggets, 121-114, on the back of a 15-point halftime lead and then a fourth quarter that they wish they’d been able to deliver in Game 2. Better late than never at all.

The Phoenix Suns needed this win VERY BADLY.

“There’s nothing wrong with admitting that,” coach Monty Williams said before the game.

Devin Booker did everything he could to extend the Suns season by at least one more game, scoring an incredible 47 points on an almost perfect 20 of 25 shooting. Kevin Durant joined the party with 39 points of his own, despite still not shooting well (just 12 of 31 from the field). The bench provided 22 points on 10 of 22 shooting, including T.J. Warren making a couple of big shots in crunch time when the Suns really needed it.

That’s all the Suns need to beat a Denver team that wouldn’t go away. Nikola Jokic had 30 points, 17 rebounds and 17 assists. Jamal Murray had 32 points on 29 shots. Michael Porter Jr. had 21 points and 12 rebounds.

The Suns are now down only 1-2 in the series with Sunday’s game at home to tie the series if they can win it.

How it happened...

First Half

When two of your starters in the second round of the playoffs are Josh Okogie and Cameron Payne, well...

It’s a good thing?

Cam Payne came out and immediately tested the Nuggets rim protection, running it down Jokic’s gullet with his patented speed-layup in transition. There’s a way the Suns can take it to these guys.

Oh and then Josh Okogie had a transition layup in their faces. Okay maybe Okogie and Payne are a good thing?

Denver took a 9-8 lead on a Michael Porter Jr. three pointer, but it still felt like the game was going the Suns way because they drove to the basket relentlessly to take advantage of Denver’s lack of rim protection. Quickly it was a 13-9 Suns lead on a Booker three to force a Denver timeout.

Denver kept coming though, and Kevin Durant was still ice cold. Durant missed 6 of his first 7 shots, and when he took a seat it got quickly down to “Booker and four bench guys” — and that’s with two of his usual bench guys in the starting lineup with him! Denver, on the other hand, is still going with their tight 3-man bench unit.

Terrence Ross, Jock Landale, Torrey Craig and Landry Shamet all came off the bench to join the Suns only good player tonight in Devin Booker. Booker had 16 of the Suns first 25 points, and their only 3-point makes (2).

Suns down 25-26 with 1:54 left in the first when they took a TV timeout.

Suns were down 31-29 after one quarter as Jeff Green made a 30-foot three with seconds left. Denver finished the quarter making 4 of 8 threes and shooting 52% overall. Almost all jumpers. The Suns shot 54% but only 2 for 6 on threes. Jamal Murray leads Denver with 12 points (5-8 shooting).

Devin Booker has 18 for the Suns (7-9 shooting). NO ONE ELSE ON THE SUNS HAS MORE THAN THREE POINTS. Durant remains 1 of 7 shooting.

Second Quarter

While we saw Terrence Ross to end the first quarter, we now see T.J. Warren to start the second quarter. The Suns couldn’t make any shots with a lineup of Durant (still nope), Landale, Payne, Shamet and Warren, but Durant’s aggression got the Nuggets into the penalty with more than 9 minutes left in the quarter, and the Suns down 37-35.

Let’s see if the Suns can capitalize.

KD got free throws the next time down to tie up the game. And KD kept getting to the line. Soon, he was up to 9 free throws and the Suns were up 45-39.

Feels like it’s been a long time since I talked about Devin Booker right? Well, he came back in while the Suns are on this run and made some back-breaking shots to put the Suns up 52-40 and force yet another Nuggets timeout at 4:45 in the second. Book now has 25, plus 2 assists, 3 rebounds and 3 steals.

At the half, the Suns led the Nuggets 67-52 behind the incredible play of Booker (27 points on 12 of 15 shooting), the gritty Durant performance forcing 12 free throws, and dishing 5 assists with 0 turnovers, and the welcome play from the bench.

Let’s detail the bench production (which I will include the other 2 starters here): 8-15 shooting for 17 first half points. Now THAT’S more like it. Ross and Warren have combined for 6 of those points.

Second Half

Jokic started the half by doing the Chris Paul swing-thru to get a call and free throws off Ayton, which was Ayton’s third foul.

The Nuggets definitely came out for the second half attacking the basket more, and Murray made shots like he did in that first quarter. Kevin Durant missed a couple more jumpers, and the Nuggets started the quarter on a 8-2 run to pull within 9.

After a couple more failed possessions, the Suns pulled Josh Okogie for Landry Shamet to force more honest defense from the overloading Nuggets who started ignoring Okogie blatantly.

Soon it was a 13-4 run and the Suns called a timeout to regroup. Way too much Durant trying to break guys down one on one (and losing, starting 0-3 this quarter), and way too little Booker, who hasn’t taken a shot since halftime. Suns up only 71-65 with 8:08 left in the third.

Booker made the Suns next two shots, but Denver is on a roll now and have scored 10 points on their last four possessions to pull back to 78-75. Sheesh. Two possessions later, Denver took the lead, 79-78 after a pair of Murray drives for easy layups. The Suns defense completely cratered here.

And Ayton was at the center of that cratering. Nikola Jokic legitimately looked like he didn’t even want to be there, yet had a triple double (17 points, 11 rebounds, 14 assists) already by mid-third quarter — almost all of that on Ayton. Ayton was slow, lazy AND timid. I can’t EVEN with this guy. Luckily for the Suns, he committed his fourth foul and had to sit. Small miracles. Ayton leaves the game with 4 points on 4 shots, 7 rebounds, 1 block and 4 fouls.

Now it’s up to Landale to save the day. Can he play 16 straight minutes?

Here’s the Suns second half summed up: Landry Shamet actually had a successful stop on Jamal Murray, forcing a bad jumper, but Aaron Gordon was right there to tip it in. No box out. Too much ball watching from the weak side.

By the end of the quarter, the Suns had given up the whole 15-point halftime good-times lead, getting down by 4 at one point, before Booker made a three to give the Suns the lead again.

Suns up 90-88 after three quarters. Kevin Durant forgot all about drawing fouls, and Devin Booker mostly forgot about attacking on offense. The Suns were outscored 36-23 in that third quarter. No one besides Booker and Durant have more than 6 points in this one. And that’s a problem. Durant has now topped the 17 Game 2 misses with 18 here, and there’s a quarter to go.

With Jokic and Murray on the bench, the Suns started the fourth quarter with a 7-0 run to take a 9-point lead, 97-88. Cam Payne made a three in transition, and Booker had a pair of physical post-ups (no foul calls). Timeout, Denver. Gotta bring Jokic and Murray back quick.

With Jokic, Porter and Gordon back, Denver started crashing the boards hard, and got themselves a ton of chances but only converted once in the next two possessions (free throws).

Denver tried to draw Booker’s fifth foul on the next possession, but got called for the charge instead. Denver challenge to overturn: CALL STANDS. Booker makes jumper on next shot, Suns up 11.

But then Booker committed his fifth foul anyway next time down on a loose ball, and there’s still over 8 minutes left. Booker sits. Suns stuck mixing and matching while Denver is powered up with their starting lineup. Ruh roh.

The game got scrappy at that point. Neither team executing, off-ball fouls all over the place. The Suns only chance is to win this scrap-war, really. But they couldn’t do that either. With 7 minutes left, Suns up 9 (101-92), Denver is in the penalty and the Suns aren’t even close.

Ayton came back in, missed a lazy jumper, missed a driving layup where he tried AGAIN to avoid contact, got a rebound stripped... and was benched again for Jock Landale. So many boos for Ayton. all deserved.

Denver kept coming. MPJ made a running three. Jokic made a three-point play. Quickly the Suns lead was down to 5 with 3:04 to play. Lots of clenched butts in the valley tonight.

T.J. Warren missed a three, but then made a three the next time down and it felt like manna from heaven. Still, MPJ got a three-point play on the other end to get it back to 5.

Warren made another shot, and the Suns finally had a good lead.

Suns win, 121-114.

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