Chris Paul, Phoenix dominate second half in Game 1 win over Denver

Game 1 between the Phoenix Suns and the Denver Nuggets was truly a tale of two halves. The teams played as competitive of a first half as any fan could have asked for but, then, Chris Paul and the Suns took control during the third quarter and never looked back as they came away with a 122-105 win.

All five of Phoenix’s starters scored in double figures, with four eclipsing the 20-point plateau, on their way to victory. Paul was fantastic, finishing the win with 21 points, 11 assists and six rebounds. He had plenty of help though as Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton combined for 64 points, 19 rebounds and 13 assists to help contribute to the Suns’ Game 1 win. On the other side, Nikola Jokic led the Nuggets with 22 points and nine rebounds but, in the end, his performance wasn’t enough to keep this game competitive down the stretch.

These two teams will meet again on Wednesday night as the opening tip of Game 2 is scheduled for 9:30 p.m. ET with TNT handling the broadcast.

Here are the three biggest takeaways from Phoenix’s Game 1 win.

1. He’s back

Yes, Chris Paul looked great in Game 4 of Phoenix’s first-round series against the Lakers, but his next two games were discouraging. He scored only 17 combined points on 33.3 percent shooting as the Suns closed out the Lakers, so there was no telling how he’d handle a more difficult test against a healthier Nuggets team. After scoring only five first-half points, it looked like his shoulder was still at considerably less than 100 percent.

Well, the second half should clear up any concerns. Chris Paul is healthy. He scored 14 points in the fourth quarter alone, showing off his typical mid-range mastery after continuously managing to find the matchup he wanted (either Michael Porter Jr. or a big man) through pick-and-roll switch-hunting. He fired high-velocity passes all over the court and even looked faster than he did in the Lakers series. This was the version of Paul that the Suns traded for, the one that helped turn them into this sort of contender in the first place. Now that Phoenix has Paul back at his best, their championship odds should be rising by the day.

2. Depth is the difference

Let’s be honest about where Denver is right now. Three of its top five guards are out and one of those three players, Jamal Murray, is a star. The Nuggets have better bench players than most, but it’s telling that they can lose a game by 17 points while one of their starters, Aaron Gordon, has a positive plus-minus for the game at plus-2. Austin Rivers was a net neutral.

Of course, that doesn’t mean much when Monte Morris is minus-28. That’s nothing against Morris, who was stellar in the Portland series. Denver is just so depleted right now that when it goes to its bench units, it is operating at such a talent deficiency that keeping up with a team like the Suns is nearly impossible.

Look at Phoenix’s box score. The Suns scored 122 points without a single player making 10 field goals. Four of its five starters scored between 20 and 23 points. All four reserves who played more than token minutes had positive point differentials. Cameron Payne has been a starting-caliber point guard this postseason and the Suns signed him for the minimum. Milwaukee released Torrey Craig in the middle of the season, but the Suns are getting useful minutes out of him. They’ve done such a good job rounding out their bench that they probably could sustain an injury or two. Denver has had so many of them that they’re at a severe disadvantage here.

3. Ayton’s ascent

There was an argument to be made entering this series that conditioning would be Deandre Ayton’s greatest weakness against Denver. He played only around 30 minutes per game during the regular season, and considering the talent around him, those weren’t always particularly strenuous minutes. Guarding Nikola Jokic is another matter entirely, and Jokic regularly plays 40 or more minutes in the postseason. Phoenix can’t afford not to scale Ayton up to match him. Frank Kaminsky and Dario Saric are just not equipped to defend Jokic whatsoever.

Yet by the second half of this game, it was Jokic who looked fatigued, not Ayton. Phoenix’s center held the presumptive MVP to only 22 points on only 10-of-23 shooting despite a 5-of-6 start from the field. Jokic feasts on the mismatches smaller teams tend to present him with. He can’t be doubled in the post because of his passing, but nontraditional centers aren’t big enough to stop him from scoring. Ayton is, though, and he largely handled Jokic well enough to prevent him from picking the Suns apart as a passer.

It was an encouraging start to his second postseason series after he thrived in Phoenix’s first against the Lakers. The timing of this jump couldn’t be better for Ayton. He’s extension-eligible after the season, and if there was any doubt coming into the postseason, it now seems clear that the Suns will give him a max extension as a reward for his excellent season.

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