With Round 1 of the 2023 NBA playoffs almost done, the first of the four conference semifinals series is now underway. On Sunday, the number one-seed Denver Nuggets played host to the number four-seed Phoenix Suns. What followed was a loud, opening salvo.
Probably holding grudges from the 2021 playoff matchup, where they were without Jamal Murray (knee) and proceeded to get handily swept, a now-healthy Denver squad poured it on Phoenix, 125-107. It was the Suns’ worst loss in the Kevin Durant era.
Like clockwork, it’s two-time MVP Nikola Jokic and high-scoring, sweet-shooting guard Jamal Murray that made it happen for the Nuggets. The two feed off each other well, and it simply exudes on the entire team.
Jokic was all over the floor, scoring 24 points, grabbing a game-high 19 rebounds (8 were offensive), and dishing out five assists, effectively making up for a lukewarm 9-for-21 shooting. He was +12 in boards opposite his counterpart, DeAndre Ayton.
Murray, on the other hand, activated his zone from the 2020 Bubble and just struck through the Phoenix defense. He fired off 20 of his 34 points in the second half, and totalled six three-pointers, only one less than the entire Suns combined – Durant, Devin Booker, and Chris Paul collectively shot 2-for-9 from beyond the arc.
If you ask Jamal, though, it’s just him and there’s no ‘Bubble’ version of himself whatsoever. Here he is rightfully flexing after the game:
“I don’t how many times I got to prove myself for y’all to believe in my game or believe in what I do, or my health or whatever it is. I can only keep doing it, keep threading, and prove everybody wrong.”
Whatever it is, he’s playing well and Nugget fans should be excited for more. This is now the third time Murray has scored 30 or more in this postseason as he tallied 40 in Game 2 against the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round and 35 in the series-clincher.
The third scorer
Denver’s third scorer is usually Michael Porter Jr., but it’s somewhat of a volatile role as seen in Game 1. MPJ went 5-for-9 from the floor and had a quiet 11 points alongside three boards, three assists, and two steals. It’s all good, though, since he earned a game-high +29 plus-minus.
Athletic forward Aaron Gordon turned out to be the third fiddle on Sunday, posting 23 points on 9-for-13 shooting (3 threes) – his +25 was second only to Porter Jr. We may see Gordon and MPJ flip-flop on the role this series, and their size and abilities could be a significant problem for the Suns.
Swingman Bruce Brown is rarely eyed to be a consistent source of scoring in a game, much less be the third man behind Jokic and Murray, but Sunday was once again a game where he proved to be a solid piece. He made his usual presence felt by getting three steals and paired it with 14 points across 25 minutes of action.
Making threes, protecting the ball, getting second chances
Among the many things that the Nuggets did well for the contest is connecting on their outside shots, avoiding silly mistakes, snagging those precious offensive boards. As such, the team sunk 16 threes on a 43.7% clip, only turned the ball over nine times, had 16 offensive rebounds, double of what Phoenix had. How did it help? For one, it helped cancel out Durant shooting 12-for-19 for 29 points and Booker going 10-for-19 for 27, which are both of their usual numbers.
Denver gained a lot of momentum with the dominating victory. It’ll be interesting to see how much it can build moving forward.