NBA Playoff Dispatches: Nuggets Show Depth; Harden becomes a hero


FOX Sports writers provide game insights throughout the NBA Playoffs. Here are her thoughts from Monday.

Nuggets 97, Suns 87: Nuggets revealing Suns’ depth issues

The Denver Nuggets are showing the NBA world that they have just as much reason to raise the Larry O’Brien trophy as anyone in June.

Clearly? Only to people who don’t follow what this team is doing. Trailing 73-70 in Game 2 with the Phoenix Suns, Denver head coach Michael Malone said his team needed to win on defense on a night the Nuggets shot 7-on-27 from 3.

This defense received some criticism and doubts about entering the postseason. The Nuggets made the playoffs 15th in the NBA with a defensive rating of 113.5.

In the final 12 minutes at Ball Arena Monday night, the Nuggets won the war, defensively fanning out Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and the Suns and holding Phoenix on 14 points to secure a 97-87 win and a comfortable 2- 0 lead as the series goes to waste.

Malone passionately urged his team to defend as hard as ever in his TNT interview between the third and fourth quarters, and that’s exactly what came to fruition in the final frame. The Suns shot 0 for 9 to start the frame, with Booker and Durant teaming to shoot 6 for 18 from the floor. We’ll get to the expenses for Phoenix in a moment.

But three things stood out about Denver’s win:

Nikola Jokic absolutely went for it and his team followed suit with the bold nature, hard finishing ability and will to win on the last straight. He played like the consecutive Most Valuable Player Award winner that he is, scoring 26 of his playing 39 points in the second half while shooting 17 of 30 from the floor and adding 16 rebounds and five assists.

“Neither team shot well and it was a close game, but you can’t think about that,” said Jokic in his TNT interview after the game. “You have to try to do what you have to do to win the game. Our defense was fantastic and we found a way. Even the shots they made were contested.”

Jokic has been the difference in critical possessions and it’s clear he has the edge over Deandre Ayton and the Suns. They have no formula to stop him in every situation and forget about the ball screen coverage when the 28-year-old from Yugoslavia gets involved in these actions. Phoenix really has his hands full trying to figure out a way to stop him.

We said earlier in the playoffs that this Denver team’s title hope could ultimately depend on Jamal Murray’s level of production. On Monday, Murray had his worst playoff game, 9-0 from 3-point territory and 3:15 from the floor. With Booker scoring 35 points on the other side, one would have thought Phoenix would surely come out on top. But in the fourth quarter, we saw the distinct advantage the Nuggets have over the Suns that won’t change this series: complementary shot-making. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope picked up the perimeter gap for his teammate and set the tone for the fourth quarter that changed the streak, drilling back-to-back threes to start the final frame to give Denver a 76-73 lead provide that they would not give up.

As Phoenix attempted to put together one final surge and cut the deficit to five at 86-81 with 3:26, KCP buried a 27-footer from left wing to bury all but every shot the Suns made from the had night, gone. On Monday it was Caldwell-Pope. On other nights it was Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon or Bruce Brown who provided the spark beyond Jokic and Murray. The Nuggets have so many more reliable options than Phoenix.

The defensive effort against Durant was Herculean, with Denver interfering in coverage of him and making it difficult for the superstar to find any rhythm. He finished 2-for-12 from downtown and 10-for-27 from the floor. It cannot be overstated how much responsibility this Nuggets team has taken on defensively. On Monday we saw championship DNA unleashed by this team. You’re the furthest from soft.

As for the Suns, there are three main concerns. First off, Chris Paul’s status is up in the air. He left the game with just under five minutes left in the third quarter after injuring his left groin trying to box Caldwell-Pope for a rebound. Let’s put it this way: If Paul misses any games, I would have a very hard time believing the Suns could win this series. They need the experienced point guard, who averages nine assists per game, to be a factor.

We’re also seeing the impact of Booker and Durant, who are only playing their 16th game together since becoming teammates when the Suns acquired KD from the Nets at close. The Nuggets’ defensive pressure had something to do with it, but especially in Monday’s fourth quarter, Phoenix often played too isolated while Booker and Durant tried to play 1-on-1. It did not work.

The Suns therefore need to dig their way out of a hole while Denver is two wins away from the Conference Finals.

76ers 119, Celtics 115: hardening becomes a hero in game 1

James Harden hit his playoff career high with 45 points and scored a go-ahead, step-back 3-pointer over Al Horford with 8.7 seconds left as the Philadelphia 76ers got up without Joel Embiid to put the Boston Celtics in game 1 119-115 of their Eastern Conference semifinal game on Monday night.

Tyrese Maxey added 26 points and Tobias Harris finished with 18 for the Sixers, who scored 17 3-pointers in the absence of MVP finalist Embiid, who sat out with the sprained right knee sustained in Game 3 of Philadelphia’s first-round series Brooklyn Networks.

Jayson Tatum led the Celtics with 39 points and 11 rebounds. Jaylen Brown added 23 points and Malcolm Brogdon finished with 20 points.

Boston hosts Game 2 on Wednesday night.

Harden previously scored 45 points for the Houston Rockets in a Western Conference Finals win against Golden State on May 25, 2015.

Trailing 117-115, the Celtics had one last chance and got the ball to Tatum, but he lost the ball to Paul Reed, who was fouled and took two free throws.

The game was tied at 87 – everyone went into the back-and-forth final stage.

Tatum gave the Celtics their final lead, 115-114, on two free throws by 26.1 seconds.

Prior to that, Boston took the shot clock down before Maxey intercepted a pass from Brogdon and ran in to a layup to put the 76ers back ahead, 114-113.

Boston led 108-107 when Harden was called out for an offensive foul on Horford. In subsequent possession, Horford found Marcus Smart, who was fouled on a layup. He completed the three-point game to 111-107.

Maxey responded with a three-point game of his own.

The game was tied at 102 when Brogdon broke free on a quick break, taking a pass from Tatum and tying in a layup with 5:04 left.

After the play, PJ Tucker seemed to swing wildly in frustration and made contact with Tatum. It led to a brief scrum, which was broken up by officers.

Reed took Embiid’s place in the starting lineup, as he did when Embiid was out for the final game of the Nets series. The absence of Embiid in the middle contributed to a quicker pace, as expected.

Both teams used this to their advantage.

Attacking the paint, the Celtics connected on 13 of their first 14 shots. The 76ers made eight of their first 10 tries, dishing out the ground well and expanding Boston’s defense.

Harden led the offense early for Philadelphia, hitting his first five tries, including two 3s. Brown started 6-6 from the field for a Boston team that thrived without Embiid protecting the rim, going on an 11-0 run at one point.

Boston shot 74% for the halftime but only went into halftime with a 66-63 lead after the 76ers went 11 to 19 (55%) from the 3-point line.

– The Associated Press

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of roles, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to commentating on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.

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