FOX Sports NBA Analyst
game of names.
That’s the statement the Denver Nuggets made Saturday, rolling over the lower seeded but highly regarded Phoenix Suns, 125-107, to take a 1-0 lead in the second round.
The Suns rolled into the ball arena with Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, the playoffs’ highest-scoring duo, one of the reasons oddsmakers favored them for winning the Western Conference title, despite the Nuggets having the best record of the regular season and the Back-to-back MVP had in Nikola Jokic (24 points, 19 rebounds).
However, the #1 question on the series wasn’t how will the Suns stop Jokic, but rather how will the Nuggets stop KD and Booker?
The Nuggets answer: We don’t have to.
Durant had 29 points on 63 percent shooting. Booker had a 27 to 52 percent shooting. Rarely is 56 scored so efficiently that it’s so insignificant. With even scoring, timely doubles teams, a deeper bench and a sizable advantage on 3-point shooting, the Nuggets went into halftime 17 points ahead and never let him fall below double figures the entire second half.
“I’ve told our guys the pressure is on them,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said of the Suns’ favor in winning the series. “Nobody picks us to win, so go out there and enjoy.”
No one played bigger or enjoyed it more than the 6-foot-3 tall Jamal Murray, who exuded the unbridled exuberance of someone who’s had to sit and watch his team play without him for the past two postseasons because of injury.
“Jamal continues to contribute to the playoff legend Jamal Murray,” said Nuggets coach Mike Malone. “He’s a bad man. He lives for it. When it’s locked and loaded, we know what it’s capable of.”
The last time we saw Murray was in the COVID-related Orlando bubble, where he helped the Nuggets reach the Western Conference Finals as the top scorer, assist provider and 3-pointer.
He reprized that role in Game 1 against the Suns. His 34 points led all scorers, his nine assists led all playmakers, and his 6-for-10 long-range shooting led all three-point scorers. “I’m just living my dream out here,” he said. “I missed two playoffs. I missed this kind of game. It’s good to be back.”
Coach Mike Malone also deserves some credit. There’s a famous video of Booker getting upset about working double-duty on a summer pickup truck ride. Well, the Nuggets decided to see if he still felt that way and flashed him for a good chunk of the first quarter. Booker didn’t complain, but it did make him far more passive as he was last seen with Phoenix’s first-round opponents, the Los Angeles Clippers. After forcing a substitution that left him one-on-one with Michael Porter Jr., Booker drove to a layup that Porter hit but was called to the goaltender. However, Booker would only have one more shot over the next seven minutes and would be content to let Durant carry the goals with 15 points in the first quarter.
While the Suns have plenty of room for improvement, particularly in ball care after 16 turnovers — 14 of which were steals from the Nuggets and half of them from Durant — there are some built-in advantages that the Suns will find difficult to overcome. Start with a big disparity in three-point shooting. The Nuggets outplayed them 48-21 from beyond the arc, and that wasn’t out of character considering how the two teams approached their opponents in the first round. The Suns averaged just 23 tries per game against the Clippers, compared to the Nuggets’ 32 against the Timberwolves. Durant and Booker went 1-4 together from afar on Saturday.
The bigger challenge will be to overcome bank disparity. Thanks to the increased garbage time, the bottom line of the box doesn’t reflect the impact of the two teams going to their subs, but Denver’s first-half outburst was fueled in part with seven points and eight rebounds from Bruce Brown. Jeff Green and Christian Brown.
Even more important is the pace at which the Nuggets played and want to keep going. They had 17 fast break points and are aware that Durant and Booker are 1-2 going into playoff minutes and Chris Paul isn’t far behind. If the Suns are going to compete in this series, their Big Three need to step up both ways — and get faster.
“That was a focus for the season,” Malone said. “It doesn’t matter who we play against, that’s us. But then you talk about their team and the minutes these guys play, we want to get out there and run and attack. Then we are at our best.”
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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