PHOENIX — The roar was deafening, a ruthless indication of the Suns’ firepower.
As Chris Paul carved apart Denver’s backcourt, and Mikal Bridges sunk another 3-pointer, the noise only grew louder. The Suns overwhelmed the Nuggets in the second half here Monday night, blasting Denver 122-105 in Game 1 of their conference semifinals.
If the Nuggets are going to win Wednesday’s Game 2, they’ll need to handle the heat far better than they did in the series opener.
Nuggets’ center Nikola Jokic was limited to 22 points on 10-of-23 shooting, most of his damage coming in the first half. Sidekick Michael Porter Jr. added just 15 points and seven rebounds, while fellow forward Aaron Gordon offered Denver’s best second-half response. He finished with 18 points on 8-of-14 from the field.
Monday was a blistering reminder of how dangerous the Suns can be when they start to cook. Their third quarter 25-7 surge all but ran the Nuggets out of the gym.
Paul orchestrated the Suns’ offense with ruthless efficiency. He finished with 21 points and 11 assists, and Bridges had a game-high 23 on four 3-pointers. Devin Booker registered 21 points and eight assists, leaving little doubt the talent advantage the Suns have in the backcourt.
Even former Nugget Torrey Craig got in on the action. His late alley-oop drew a seismic roar from the home crowd.
When Facundo Campazzo flicked the ball over his head and found Jokic open at the top of the arc for a 3-pointer, it seemed to portend a strong third quarter for the Nuggets. But then the wheels fell off.
Denver’s offense deteriorated and boiled down to long jump shots, while the Suns slowly built momentum and the volume inside the arena peaked.
The Nuggets led 70-60 with 8:13 remaining in the third when the Suns blitzed Denver, reeling off a game-changing run. After Jokic missed everything on a corner 3-pointer, Booker responded with a devastating step-back 3 of his own, stretching the Suns’ lead to 77-72. Were it not for a clutch 3-pointer from Porter out of a timeout, the run would’ve been even worse. The Suns led 88-79 lead heading into the fourth.
Given that the Nuggets hadn’t seen the Suns since January, Nuggets coach Michael Malone couldn’t predict how Phoenix would open defensively.
“Game 1 is kind of like a first date,” Malone joked. “… We’ll see what they’re doing, they’re going to see what we’re doing.”
Phoenix opened the game with Bridges on Porter, though his length didn’t seem to bother Porter in the least. Porter ripped off two early 3-pointers and knocked in 12 points on 5-of-8 from the field over the first two quarters.
And though there was much hand-wringing over the Jokic-Ayton matchup entering the series, the NBA’s presumptive MVP had no trouble finding his spots. Jokic poured in 15 points on 7-of-11 from the field in the first half. Barely a minute into the game, Jokic surged down the lane, caught a pass on the break, and, finding himself in no man’s land, opted to pass the ball to himself off the backboard for a layup.
“The weird thing with Nikola is, and we’ve talked, that’s why I think he’s going to like this series, the schedule of this series,” Malone said. “He likes to play every other day. That’s what it was during the season, we played every other day. The long breaks, the two days in between, it can feel long for players. Nikola’s a rhythm guy, he likes the rhythm of playing every other day. That’s what he likes, that’s what he got.”
Thanks to Jokic, Porter and Campazzo, the Nuggets carried a 58-57 lead into halftime, weathering Phoenix’s runs. Booker and Ayton paced the Suns with 11 points apiece.
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