Well, that was painful.
The Denver Nuggets spoiled the MVP celebration for Nikola Jokić with another losing effort against the Phoenix Suns to go down 3-0 in this second round playoff series. It turns out, getting back onto the home floor didn’t give Denver as much of an advantage as they were hoping for, and Denver struggled to capitalize when they had any advantages at all. Denver scored just 102 points in a game where they needed at least 115 to realistically win.
Here are my five takeaways:
The celebration of Nikola Jokić was awesome and short lived
It was great to be here for Joker’s MVP trophy presentation. Both of his brothers, Strahinja and Nemanja were here, as well as his wife Natalija and the rest of his family. It was a feel-goof moment for the Jokić family, Nuggets fans, Serbia, and many more.
Unfortunately, that positive feeling was short lived for Denver. The Nuggets immediately went down in this game and were playing from a deficit for the entire contest. The Suns hit them in the mouth, and the Nuggets responded well to close the deficit to four points going into halftime. Still, Denver didn’t make it work coming out of halftime and had too many mistakes, despite a much better effort than Games 1 and 2.
It’s also notable that Jokić had 32 points, 20 rebounds, and 10 assists, the third such time that a player has posted 30-20-10 in NBA history. He wasn’t perfect to be clear, but he showed up in this game in a way that few of his teammates could match.
The Nuggets missed too many threes
The story of the series is the Nuggets continuing to miss too many open threes.
For the third straight game, the Nuggets shot 35% from three or below. The misses came from everywhere, but most surprising was seeing Jokić go 1-of-6 from three, most of his misses coming up short (a lot of Jokić’s jumpers were short on the night).
But for the bulk of tonight, and for the bulk of the series, the Nuggets were generating open jumpers for role players. The same shots that the Nuggets were hitting confidently against the Portland Trail Blazers, they are now missing against the Phoenix Suns. Whether that is something the Suns are doing differently or not doesn’t really matter, because the Nuggets are often getting the shots they are hoping for and are missing anyway.
Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. struggled on opposite ends of the floor
It was a difficult night for Denver’s starting forwards tonight. As strong as the defense was from Aaron Gordon on Devin Booker and the other Suns that he guarded, the offensive end was a major weak spot. The Nuggets ran a few plays for Gordon that ended up in clean shot attempts and misses. Gordon also forced the issue at times and was burned by it was untimely turnovers, including a charge when he decided against taking an open three.
Porter was a mess defensively once again. The Suns mercilessly targeted Porter when he was on the floor, as they don’t fear his defense in any way, shape, or form. Their success rate when targeting him in isolation was high, as was the success rate when forcing him to close out on Mikal Bridges and other Suns role players. It was difficult to watch.
Porter and Gordon were Denver’s second and third best players heading into these playoffs, and though they acquitted themselves well in the first round with some great bounce back performances, the last two games have been particularly troublesome for Denver’s forward duo. The Nuggets have needed those two to be collectively better, and it just hasn’t been good enough against an elite team.
Monte Morris and Will Barton each had strong bench performances
It wasn’t all gloomy for Denver. The Nuggets needed a bounce back performance from Monte Morris and he absolutely delivered. 21 points on 8-of-12 from the field to go with five assists compared to zero turnovers is some serious efficiency. He navigated the pick and roll well, giving the Nuggets a true pick and roll option as someone who could both get to the rim and pull up from the perimeter if the defense was giving too much space.
Will Barton also contributed 14 points, seven rebounds, and three assists off the bench in 28 minutes, blowing past his minute restriction to try and keep the Nuggets in the contest. It certainly wasn’t Barton’s fault that the Nuggets were down, and his ability to create shots from nothing really helped Denver tonight. He slowed down some in the fourth quarter, but that’s to be expected frankly, as the Nuggets were counting on him for some heavy playoff contributions.
It wouldn’t surprise me if both Morris and Barton started on Sunday in Game 4.
The Suns are really, really good. Maybe great?
The Nuggets haven’t had an answer for the Suns all series on either end of the floor. The Suns run such a tight ship in everything that they do, executing pick and roll actions, defensive coverages, out of bounds sets, and isolation offense at a very high level. They are well coached, connected, and play very hard for each other.
This isn’t a direct reflection of the Nuggets, who I thought were legitimate championship contenders before the Murray injury. It does speak to the differences between the two teams from an execution standpoint though. The Nuggets are often caught waiting for Nikola Jokić to create something from nothing or for Michael Porter Jr. to hit a tough three. The Suns are always moving the ball to the next open player, and given their precision on both ends of the floor, that seems to happen often.
I underestimated the Suns. Whether the Nuggets did or not remains irrelevant. The Suns are up 3-0 and on the verge of sweeping the Nuggets on their home floor Sunday. It will take a significantly better shooting performance for the Nuggets to avoid that happening, and they just might not have it in them.