The battle has turned into a beating — at least in the first two games of the Western Conference second-round playoff series between the Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets.
The second-seeded Suns held serve at home with two decisive victories against the third-seeded Nuggets, and now the venue moves to Denver for Game 3 of the best-of-seven set on Friday night.
If Chris Paul has his way, his Phoenix team will head home after Game 4 on Sunday night with a sweep.
“We’re cool,” Paul said. “We have guys who understand the moment.”
Paul, the 36-year-old point guard who has endured his share of playoff disappointments, might be looking at his best chance of reaching an NBA Finals. He was close three years ago with Houston, when the Rockets led the Golden State Warriors 3-2 in the conference finals only to drop the last two games. Paul sustained a pulled hamstring in Game 5 of that series and missed the final two contests.
This year he was hampered in the first round against the Los Angeles Lakers with a shoulder injury but has recovered, as the Nuggets can confirm. Paul had 17 points, 15 assists and zero turnovers Wednesday night in Phoenix’s 123-98 victory, and in the two games he has 26 assists and one turnover.
“Obviously 15 assists, zero turnovers is unheard of,” Suns guard Devin Booker said. “But for Chris Paul, it’s a thing that he does and makes it look normal.”
Paul has orchestrated two dominant performances by Phoenix. In both games, all five starters scored in double figures, and the Suns held Denver to an average of 101.5 points per game, down from 115.1 points a game in the regular season.
While the Suns are looking for a commanding lead in the series Friday night, the Nuggets are searching for answers — and effort. After a 17-point loss in Game 1, JaMychal Green and Aaron Gordon said the Nuggets played soft.
Wednesday night it was head coach Michael Malone who questioned the effort. Not even the return of Will Barton could spark Denver. He scored 10 points but was limited to 16 minutes in his first game in nearly two months after recovering from a hamstring injury.
“I saw one team that wanted to be here and played with a purpose and urgency, and one team that did not want to be here,” Malone said. “That’s why we got our (rear) kicked.
“I just told our players, it’s embarrassing that a guy that hasn’t been able to play for seven weeks was out there leaving it all on the line. I don’t think anybody else did.”
Newly crowned MVP Nikola Jokic averaged 23 points and 11 rebounds in the first two games, but the rest of the Nuggets have struggled on offense. Michael Porter Jr., who is dealing with back issues, scored just 11 points in Game 2. Gordon had 18 in the first game but just six points Wednesday night, and backup point guard Monte Morris shot a combined 2-for-17 in the first two games.
The Nuggets hope coming home will make a difference, as well as the postgame meeting after losing Game 2 by 25 points.
“Some things were definitely said,” Barton said, “some things that needed to be said.”