DENVER — The third quarter was when it all unraveled, when the Phoenix Suns lost their grip on Game 5 and perhaps their grip on this Western Conference semifinal series altogether.
Phoenix crushed an early 9-0 blowout from Denver in the first frame of Tuesday night's contest, when the combination of Devin Booker's efficient sniping and Kevin Durant overcame a 1-of-9 shooting start to lead by three points at halftime. Caught the sun inside. Only one team recovered for the second half, however, as the Nuggets began the third period on a 17–4 run from which the Phoenix never recovered. Denver built gains as large as 21 and dug a hole so deep, by the fourth quarter, that the Suns sent a five-man lineup to the scorer's table with about five minutes left in the game. The Nuggets would end up with a 118–102 victory, claiming a crucial 3–2 series advantage.
Phoenix head coach Monty Williams said, “When we got down, you could see the faces weren't as strong as they usually are.” Veteran point guard Chris Paul, sidelined with a strained groin for the third consecutive game, tried to coax a change of spirit in several huddles, but Williams lacked that as his roster has lost two straight at home. Maintained and emphasized during the victory. Desert. “There's a level of mental stamina you have to have in the playoffs,” Williams said. “You have to keep your hitting balance at a productive level, so no matter what happens on the floor, you can always play your stuff or rely on your defense.”
After a sluggish start of his own, shooting just 1-6 from the field in the first half, Jamal Murray set the second-half tone for the Nuggets that rattled the Suns' resolve. He curled his back into a stiff defender, Landry Schmett, and found his way to a pair of layups—the second was a volley past Schmett, with Murray spewing a string of junk in his opponent's direction. , causing a technical foul from a nearby official. Murray said, “I try to outdo myself sometimes.” “Sometimes, you know, I just need a little energy boost for myself. Once I'm in attack mode, it changes the game.”
Denver attacked. Two minutes after Durant was whistled for a moving screen in an attempt to keep Booker from losing, Murray met the Suns' endless scorer at the rim with 6:48 left in the third, drawing a fourth foul on Durant that forced Williams to take the lead. Had to sit 13 times. The All-Star for whom Phoenix freed up its largest chunk to acquire at the February trade deadline.
That's when Denver's lead went up to 20 in the first for a 77–57 lead. The Nuggets eventually quashed Booker's offensive explosion throughout these playoffs during that stretch. He opened the game sizzling 5-of-8 from the field en route to 19 first-half points, but Booker went just 1-of-8 in the third quarter. He saw wave after wave of defenders and supplemental offense with Durant on the bench appear to be drowning without any, any form, life raft. Nikola Jokic missed his layup attempt. Booker hit a 3-point look airball from the left wing. He missed a pull-up in the lane. Williams said, “I thought all they did was make everything harder on us.” “They ran two or three guys into Kevin and the book tonight. They tried to bottle-feed them.
“We were aggressive,” said Denver's two-time MVP center Jokic, who passed Wilt Chamberlain with his 10th postseason triple-double, the fifth-highest total in NBA history. Jokic finished with 29 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists. “The two games in Phoenix, they were the ones pushing us everywhere, digging us out, out of our spots.”
The Nuggets were able to ground Phoenix's flamboyant offense in Games 3 and 4. After Nuggets head coach Michael Malone spoke pregame about limiting the Suns' opportunities in transition, Denver outscored their contest 31–25 in the open field. Malone learned long ago from his father, Brendon Malone, who spent more than 40 seasons on the sidelines on the NCAA and NBA maps, the value of learning from players during film sessions. And the reaction from his roster after the consecutive losses indicated that Nuggets players wanted to put pressure on Booker from the moment he touched the ball, passing 90-plus feet from the basket on any inbound pass.
“We [were] Letting Devin Booker carry the ball up every time, lead a double drag, get to his spot and beat us,” Malone said. “So let's be a tease.”
The Nuggets executed that gameplan in spades. They provided the complementary contributions the Suns had sorely missed – Bruce Brown provided 25 points off the bench, Michael Porter pulled off four triples in the opening period, rookie wing Christian Brown stole a steal and fired a two-handed jam over Durant. . Next to Murray's locker, taped to a black wall, is a printout of Bruce Lee and the quote, “Knowing is not enough, we must apply. Wanting is not enough we must do.” The Nuggets understood their task and, clearly, did it all evening.
Denver is 6-0 at home in the playoffs. The Nuggets may not return to this hardwood floor 5,280 feet above sea level until Thursday in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals in Phoenix.
Paul's status is in question for a possible elimination game. He was on the court, shooting with assistant coach and close friend Jarrett Jack during pregame activity, and didn't look particularly comfortable attempting to make five straight at different spots along the 3-point arc. . Surya is well aware of the difficulty of returning from that sorrow. Booker came back too early from his groin injury on Christmas Day. And after playing just four minutes, he aggravated the issue again, rendering him inactive for Phoenix's next 21 games.
Even with Phoenix in the balance of the season, Paul is still 38 years old, and risks losing him for a deep stretch of the post-season – which Suns personnel certainly still believe That's attainable – will definitely lead to her rehab on the next one. 48 hours.
Williams said, “When we go home we have to win, so we can come back and play here.”