With one minute remaining in Game 2 on Wednesday night, Chris Paul sat on the bench, removed his jersey, autographed it and then gave it to a young fan. Paul had just torched the Denver Nuggets with 17 points, 15 assists, five rebounds and no turnovers in the Phoenix Suns’ 123-98 win, and he still had enough time to hand out gifts.
If I were playing for the Nuggets, I’d take that personally.
Problem is, they have yet to push back.
After scoring the first bucket of the night, Denver trailed for the final 47 minutes and totally lost control in the third quarter when Phoenix pushed its 52-42 halftime lead to 86-67. Even worse, the Nuggets let the Suns do whatever they wanted on offense.
Phoenix was efficient. Its starting lineup all scored in double figures. Devin Booker had 18 points and 10 rebounds. Deandre Ayton also had a double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Mikal Bridges had 16 points and Jae Crowder added 11.
The Suns hold a 2-0 series lead, but I don’t think the series is over. All they did was hold home court. The Nuggets will need to key on a few elements to right their ship in this best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal series.
Here’s how they can turn things around in Games 3 and 4 at Ball Arena.
Feed off home cooking
While Palisade peaches, Rocky Mountain oysters and craft beers are known tasty staples in the city of Denver, the Nuggets are hungry for a win. They performed much better at home during the regular season, compiling a 25-11 home record to earn the West’s third seed, and they showed up and showed out in Round 1 in eliminating Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers in six games.
Denver’s gone ghost in Round 2 thus far. A reboot is needed.
"We quit tonight, which is something you never want to see," Nuggets coach Michael Malone said after Wednesday’s loss. "So, I guess for Game 3, I'm just going to try to find guys that will at least go out there and leave it all on the line.”
The Suns were motivated by the 16,000-plus fans at Talking Stick Arena — “The energy, there’s nothing like it,” Paul said — and now it’s Denver’s turn. Expect the Nuggets’ home crowd to be loud and proud for Game 3 on Friday, when Nikola Jokic formally accepts his NBA MVP trophy before tipoff.
Get Jokic some help
Jokic has been the one constant for Denver in the playoffs. He finished with 24 points, 13 rebounds and six assists in Game 2 and is averaging 23.0 points, 11.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists in the series.
He needs a healthy dose of Michael Porter Jr.
Porter Jr’s scoring is essential for the Nuggets to have a chance at evening the series. While Porter had 15 points and seven rebounds in Game 1, he tweaked his back in that game, and after treatment and rest, he scored only 11 points in 28 minutes in Game 2.
Contain DeAndre Ayton
The Suns center is causing havoc. While Ayton and Jokic have exchanged pleasantries during press conferences on why they like each other's games, I’d imagine that the Nuggets will place an emphasis on containing Ayton for Game 3 and beyond.
It’s worth noting that Ayton’s foul trouble in the first quarter Wednesday forced Dario Saric to sub in for him. Perhaps this is a trend that Denver can continue.
Slow down Devin Booker
Will Barton III is Denver’s best hope. He’s the only legitimate lockdown defender on the roster.
Barton returned to the Nuggets’ lineup for Game 2 after missing two months with a hamstring strain. On a limited-minutes restriction, he finished with 10 points, three rebounds and a block.
Barton’s energy is infectious. Denver has to hope he can build off his postseason debut and be a big part of the defensive solution against Booker, who’s averaging 19.5 points a game on 53.8 percent shooting.
What to watch for Thursday
The Milwaukee Bucks will try and get back into their series with the Brooklyn Nets, as the Bucks return home in a 2-0 hole. The Nets will again be without one of their Big Three, as James Harden will miss the game because of a hamstring injury. However, they haven’t seemed to miss him so far as Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have big shoulders (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).