The Phoenix Suns pulled out a dominant 123-98 victory over the Denver Nuggets in Game 2 on Wednesday night to take a 2-0 lead in the second-round series. The victory was the fifth straight for Phoenix this postseason. Chris Paul led the way for the Suns with 17 points, 15 assists and zero turnovers. Paul’s assist-to-turnover ratio in the series is now a staggering 26-1. Devin Booker also added 18 points and 10 rebounds for the surging Suns.
Phoenix appeared to be a step faster than Denver on both ends of the floor in the second game, as it got virtually whatever it wanted on the offensive end while simultaneously making things difficult defensively for Denver. All five Suns starters scored in double figures, compared to only two for the Nuggets’ first five. Freshly minted MVP Nikola Jokic paced the Nuggets with 24 points, 13 rebounds and six assists, but his production wasn’t nearly enough, especially with minimal help from the guys around him. Moving forward, Nuggets coach Mike Malone is going to have to figure out a way to get his team going, particularly Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr., who combined for just 17 points on 6-of-20 shooting in Game 2.
The only good news for the Nuggets right now is that the series if about to shift to Denver for Games 3 and 4. There, the Nuggets will obviously look to play better than they were able to do in Phoenix. Unfortunately for Denver, the math isn’t on its side. A total of 430 playoff series have started 2-0, and only 28 times has the team that gained the early advantage failed to win the series, per Land of Basketball. That’s less than seven percent of the time. The most recent example of this occurred in the first round this year, as the Los Angeles Clippers bested the Dallas Mavericks in seven games after dropping the first two games of the series. So, it’s not an impossible feat, but it is an unlikely one. The Nuggets can’t think about the odds, obviously, as their full focus needs to be on Game 3, which is scheduled for Friday night. Before moving on to that game, though, here are three key takeaways from Game 2.
1. CP3 put on a playmaking clinic
Chris Paul is one of the best playmakers in NBA history, and his passing ability was on full display in Game 2. Paul picked apart Denver’s defense with precision passing, and he set his teammates up with open opportunity after open opportunity over the course of the contest. When all was said and done, Paul had compiled 15 assists, which is tied for the third most he’s ever had in a playoff game — and he’s played in a whole lot of playoff games. Equally as impressive as the sheer number of assists that he had was how Paul didn’t record a single turnover during the entire game. He finished with a 15-0 assist-to-turnover ratio.
As eye-popping as Paul’s numbers were, this isn’t the first time that Paul recorded at least 15 points, 15 assists and zero turnovers in a playoff game. In fact, it isn’t even the second time. Paul has now accomplished the feat three times — the same number of times as all other players combined since 1980.
Paul has now recorded a 15-point, 15-assist, zero-turnover game in three different decades. Let that sink in for a moment. The guy’s longevity is impressive. Everyone loves to talk about LeBron James’ longevity, and rightfully so, but Paul should be mentioned in the same breath. Over a decade and a half into his career, Paul still appears to be near the peak of his powers, and he’s an enormous part of the reason why the Suns are now just two wins away from a conference finals appearance.
2. The Nuggets weren’t making their 3s, but kept shooting them
Denver had a rough night from beyond the arc. The Nuggets started out slowly from long range, and they were never quite able to recover. They shot just 1 of 13 from deep in the first quarter, but that didn’t discourage them. Instead of saying “hey, maybe it’s not our night from long range” and looking to attack the basket, the Nuggets just continued to fire up 3s. When the final buzzer sounded, the Nuggets had attempted 43 3s, and made just 14 of them. That’s less than 33 percent — well below the league average.
There’s something to be said about leaning on a previously successful strategy. Stick with what got you there, as they say. Sometimes, though, adjustments need to be made on the fly. When you’re having an off night from beyond the arc, mix things up. Go to the rim, draw some fouls, try to get a couple of easy ones to go in and build off of that. That’s basic basketball, but the Nuggets didn’t do it in Game 2. By continuing to jack up shots from long range, the Nuggets played right into the Suns’ hands, as the misses led to transition opportunities for Phoenix. Moving forward, the Nuggets will likely shoot better from long range, but if not hopefully they’ll ultimately adjust their offensive approach.
3. Denver really misses Jamal Murray in this series
After Jamal Murray went down with an ankle injury during the regular season, many expected the Nuggets to sink in the standings. That didn’t happen as they were instead able to maintain their position. Then, they were able to advance past the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round without Murray. He was missed, but they were able to get the job done without him. That might not be the case in this series, though, as Murray’s absence is obvious and his production is badly needed.
Outside of Jokic, the Nuggets are having a tough time getting anything going on the offensive end. In Game 2, Denver’s guard trio of Austin Rivers, Facundo Campazzo and Monte Morris combined for just 12 points on 4-of-19 shooting. They were severely outplayed and out-produced by Phoenix’s backcourt for the second straight game, and their frontcourt duo of Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. didn’t fare much better. No one is stepping up and seizing that secondary role next to Jokic — Murray’s role. When he’s out there, Murray is a guy who can go and get a bucket virtually whenever he wants, especially when the defense is keying in on Jokic. It was just last season that he had two 50-point performances in the first round against Utah. Murray can score, and for the first time since he went down, it’s extremely evident how badly Denver misses him. Without him, the talent disparity in the series might just be too big for Denver to overcome.