FOX Sports NBA Analyst
The star combos for both the Phoenix Suns and the Denver Nuggets popped up and down. If Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray have their way, the result of Sunday’s Game 4 could still be a tie. The reason for Phoenix’s 129-124 win and now a 2-2 draw in the series? The much-maligned sunbed.
Two games ago, this bench had a total of four points in 2-of-16 shooting. The Suns managed just 87 points as the Nuggets took a 2-0 lead. But when starting point guard Chris Paul was injured that game, a funny thing happened: Coach Monty Williams had no choice but to turn to his bench for help. And this bank has delivered.
No sub contributed more to Sunday’s win than Landry Shamet, who didn’t even remove his warm-up suit in that Game 2 loss. Shamet had 19 points on 6-of-9 shooting, including 14 in the fourth quarter. His burst of three threes within 3 1/2 minutes midway through the fourth quarter helped open a 10-point lead.
“It takes a whole group to win this season,” said shooting guard Devin Booker. “It’s the highest form of basketball and I’m grateful to be a part of it.”
Booker increases this form. His shooting has become so clinical that Steph Curry could soon have a challenger on his throne as the game’s top marksman, but where Booker’s game has really matured is in his decision making. The Nuggets chose to catch him and force the ball out of his hands at every opportunity in half-court sets. In the past, Booker has been frustrated and pushed the issue. On Sunday, he trusted his teammates – obviously easier when one of them is Kevin Durant – and looked for his opportunities, attacking in transition. Result: Both he and Durant had 36 points. Booker also had a game high of 12 assists.
Nuggets coach Mike Malone acknowledged the Suns’ firepower and the contributions Williams received from his bench, but he blamed his team’s efforts for the series being tied.
“Our defense has not arrived in the desert,” he said. “We need to have a much greater urgency on defense.”
The Nuggets also have one of the league’s greatest offensive weapons, the Big Man variant, in Nikola Jokić, who game after game is erasing the notion that he’s more of a regular-season miracle than a post-season achiever. Almost as efficient and unstoppable as Booker, Jokić had 53 points to go with 11 assists. He could also be seen repeatedly dashing past the three-point arc to pressure Booker.
However, his performance is certainly overshadowed by the incident that took place with 2 1/2 minutes remaining in the second quarter when the ball and Sun forward Josh Okogie flew into the front row of seats near the baseline across from the team’s benches. A fan had the ball under his arm and when Jokić tried to grab it, the fan fought back and the ball sailed away from both of them. A scuffle ensued, with Jokić placing his forearm in the fan’s chest and pushing him back into place.
Jokić was penalized with a technical foul for unsportsmanlike conduct but there could be further repercussions, partly because the fan happened to be the Suns’ new team owner Mat Ishbia.
That certainly won’t sit well with Malone, who wondered why Jokić received the T. “I think it’s crazy,” he said. “A fan holds onto the ball as if they want to be part of the game.” When told the fan was Ishbia, Malone was unimpressed. “I don’t give a fuck. Give up the ball, man.”
Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has authored two books, Rebound, about NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with early-onset Parkinson’s disease, and Yao: A Life In Two Worlds. He also has a daily podcast, On The Ball with Ric Bucher. Follow him on Twitter @Ric Bucher.
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