The Phoenix Suns were 11 years between playoff appearances before dispatching the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
Now, suddenly, the Suns are basking in the spotlight as they look to take a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference semifinals when they host the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night.
Second-seeded Phoenix notched a 122-105 win in Game 1 on Monday with a powerful 59-33 run over the final 19 minutes, 34 seconds.
The recovery from a nine-point deficit included spurts of 16-0 and 11-0 as the Suns showed off the style of play that enabled them to record the second-best record (51-21) in the regular season.
“I’m happy everybody’s getting to see this on the national stage,” Suns point guard Chris Paul said after the team’s fourth consecutive postseason win.
Paul was one of four players to score 20 or more points. He was 6-of-6 shooting in the fourth quarter, when he tallied 14 of his 21 points. He also contributed 11 assists and six rebounds.
The stellar effort comes after Paul injured his right shoulder in Game 1 of the series against the Lakers and aggravated it in Game 5.
But there was no sign of Paul being hindered on Monday as he took over the game as both a shooter and floor leader.
“That’s who he is,” Suns coach Monty Williams said of the 11-time All-Star. “Whether it is facilitating and getting the ball to guys where they need it or in those moments being able to knock down the shots.
“But I think he is more concerned with the management of the game. I don’t think he really cares about his shooting percentage. He doesn’t want to turn the ball over. He wants to make sure he manages the game well.”
Paul received help from his teammates as Mikal Bridges scored a game-high 23 points, Devin Booker contributed 21 points and eight assists and Deandre Ayton added 20 points and 10 rebounds.
Third-seeded Denver is playing without two starters, Jamal Murray (season-ending ACL) and Will Barton (hamstring), and Game 1 was an example of the depth issues the team has faced in recent weeks.
Once the Suns got rolling, the Nuggets couldn’t counter the way they could have earlier in the season when they won two of three meetings with Phoenix.
“We’re undermanned. There’s a reason no one is giving us a chance to win this series,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “We have to bring our best version of ourselves and (Monday night), we didn’t get that from a lot of guys. We’ll need that Wednesday night.”
NBA MVP Nikola Jokic had 22 points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots but didn’t score any points, grab any rebounds or notch any assists in the fourth quarter. He missed both his shot attempts to finish 10 of 23 for the contest.
“When things aren’t going our way, we need to be more decisive,” Jokic said. “We need to know what we are doing as a group.”
Jokic encountered trouble dealing with Ayton while Denver’s overall effort wasn’t up to par.
“Soft, that’s a good way to put it,” Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon said. “Scared, that’s another way to play it. You could choose between them two words, either soft or scared, that’s what it felt like we were playing like.”
At the same time, Paul was lifting his team on his back over the final 12 minutes as the Suns closed the game in style.
“We felt that energy. We felt that passion behind it,” Booker said of Paul. “He just made plays. Not only his scoring ability, but getting everybody else involved. That’s been the story of the season for us, following him in that regard.”
Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. tweaked his troublesome back in Monday’s first half but is expected to play in Game 2. He scored 15 points.
–Field Level Media