Game 2 may have been a golden opportunity for the Phoenix Suns.
Anyone not named Nikola Jokic or Aaron Gordon was struggling early on and for a time, the Suns were able to stay in step with the Western Conference’s top seed. Devin Booker and Kevin Durant weren’t having stellar shooting nights from the jump, but their timely baskets allowed Phoenix to take a 42-40 lead over the Denver Nuggets at halftime. Chris Paul’s playmaking even kept things close even as the third quarter began.
But then, little did they know that things would only go downhill from there.
Fouls became a nagging issue for the Suns, whose frontcourt of Durant, Deandre Ayton, and Bismack Biyombo committed a total of 12 fouls. Jokic scored 26 of his game-high 39 points in the second half, punishing whoever Phoenix put in front of him.
Then came Paul’s injury. CP3 is closer to being a shell of his former shelf than a nightmare for opposing defenses, but his ability to get the ball moving wasn’t an issue and made life much easier for Booker and Durant. When Paul exited with 4:32 left in the third quarter, the Nuggets defense had an easier time containing the Suns’ two stars. The ball movement became more stagnant and players were at times standing in certain spots.
The search for Phoenix’s offense was more than just about CP3’s absence as trips to the free throw line were nearly non-existent. The Suns’ first free throws came with nearly four minutes having gone by in the third quarter and by that time, Denver had already made a few trips to the line.
Defensively, Phoenix took time to adjust to Jokic’s scoring and when they made some headway, the rest of the Nuggets rediscovered their shooting touch. While the game was close until the latter half of the fourth quarter, it was clear the Suns could not recover.
Being down 2-0 and playing at home for the next two games technically means there is a chance Phoenix can even the series, but given the confluence of factors from Game 2, the chances of advancing or even clinching a win for that matter are getting slim.
Rest will be key as both Booker and Durant played at least 44 minutes, with the former having played a combined 85 out of the possible 96 minutes through two games. It’s a contrast from Denver, which saw Jokic and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope play 41 minutes each in Game 2 and become the first two Nuggets to eclipse 40 minutes of game time in this series.
However, postseasons are defined by adjustments or lack thereof.
Suns head coach Monty Williams used an 11-man rotation in trying to find the right combination, but it was surprising to see Landry Shamet and Terrence Ross register DNP-CDs. Shamet has had a trying postseason, but in a game where everyone was struggling, it might not have done more harm if Williams used Game 2 to help Shamet rediscover his shot. Ross may have only played two games in the playoffs but might have been worth a look given the struggles of Torrey Craig, Cameron Payne, and Damion Lee, who all combined for one made field goal in 14 attempts.
Williams can take a long look at his bench with the minutes open given Paul’s injury. One has to wonder how long Phoenix can survive without CP3, whose postseason career has been littered with unfortunate injuries. This latest one could prove to be tough, though.
Containing Jokic might be nearly impossible, but limiting his effectiveness in creating opportunities for his teammates is a great place to start. There was a glimpse of that in Game 2 and clogging the back-to-back MVP’s passing lanes helped level the playing field. Jokic can get his points now and Phoenix would rather he fights for his shots now and be huffing and puffing later on. The Suns can try to be physical with Denver’s perimeter players, but they have to be wary of fouls that can bite them back again in the end.
The Phoenix Suns may be down 2-0 to the Denver Nuggets in their 2023 Western Conference Playoffs Semifinal matchup, but the way Game 2 turned out might as well feel like a 3-0 deficit. Nothing can be done to change those losses, but they still have time to make changes before the sun sets on their chances.