As star-driven as the NBA has been, basketball remains a team sport. Teams can only go as far as their stars can take them, but it’s when the rest of the squad pulls through that championship aspirations are much closer to reality.
Such a situation is shaping up with the Phoenix Suns, who drew first blood in their Western Conference Semifinal series against the Denver Nuggets with a balanced attack that arguably came from all fronts.
Game 1 began as a close affair with the Nuggets even taking a 58-57 halftime lead. Staring at a 72-63 deficit with 7:34 left in the third quarter, the Suns then went on a 15-7 run to close out the third quarter with an 88-79 lead. From then, Phoenix blew the game open, with their lead going to as high as 20 points. 20 was a pretty prevalent number in this game, as the Suns also finished the game with four 20-point scorers.
Chris Paul and Devin Booker naturally provided the finishing touches in this Game 1 victory, but neither emerged as the game’s top scorer. Instead, it was third-year player Mikal Bridges who led the team with a game-high 23 points on uber-efficient .667/.500/1.000 shooting splits. His five rebounds, five assists, two steals, and a block filled out his all-around stat line in what was arguably the best game of the Villanova product’s career.
Booker finished with a relatively quiet 21 points, but his eight assists helped set the tone for the balanced attack. In fact, he and Paul combined for 19 of the team’s 30 assists. The two-time all-star, will have to tighten things up, though, as his five turnovers were half of the Phoenix’s total.
Paul shrugged off talk about his ailing shoulder as he came up with his first signature performance for this postseason. His 21 points and 11 assists (on just one turnover!) are a typical statline when taking a bigger-picture look at Paul’s career, but as hard as it may be to believe, it took six games before the 2006 Rookie of the Year earned his first double-double this postseason. Nevertheless, his value naturally goes beyond his numbers considering how three of his teammates finished with at least 20 points.
The individual performances are obviously a positive sign, but most of it was the product of a team-oriented attack that put Denver on skates. The Nuggets had initially tried to use Aaron Gordon to wear out both Paul and Booker on defense, but drawing fouls on the latter didn’t seem to deter him and the rest of the Suns. Phoenix instead made the Denver defenders run around in circles by creating mismatches and setting screens that could lead to easy baskets. Running these sets a few times then gave the Suns’ shooters a sliver of space to punish the Nuggets.
Jamal Murray’s absence was more prevalent in this matchup as Nikola Jokic had inconsistent support and finished this game with more turnovers (four) than assists (three). Murray would have given Booker fits on the defensive end and likely have placed him in deeper foul trouble (he had three in Game 1). Austin Rivers had seven points but needed seven shots to get them, while Michael Porter Jr. scored 12 points in the first half but was clearly not the same in the second half as he seemed to tweak his back. It could be something to monitor moving forward, especially considering that he has slotted into Murray’s scoring role along with Rivers.
Denver will have to make adjustments in the succeeding games and although Murray is out, the rest of the team is capable of leading a comeback. Game 1 also provided them opportunities that they can capitalize on in the succeeding games. Attacking both Paul and Booker on defense is still not a lost cause but how they do it might be something they have to work on. Deandre Ayton (20 points and 10 rebounds) is also a constant lob threat so trying Gordon on Ayton especially when he’s out of the post may also preserve Jokic’s fitness for the rest of the series. Thanks to Game 1, the Nuggets know now who will likely step up so now it’s developing particular schemes against these players.
Hot takes and knee jerk reactions are commonplace especially for a fast-paced game like basketball, but many tend to forget that this is still a best-of-seven series. Anything can happen in the course of a handful of games so let’s sit back and watch the rest of this series unfold.