The Suns’ star point guard put together another masterful performance to lead Phoenix to a blow out Game 2 win.
Nikola Jokić’s MVP was well-earned this season, and he’s proven to be a postseason metronome through his first 41 playoff games. Jokić entered Wednesday night’s Game 2 matchup with the Suns averaging 25.9 points, 11 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game in his playoff career, adding a dozen 30-point performances in the process. He continued to provide quality postseason play in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals tallying 24 points and 13 rebounds in 30 minutes. But while Jokić is undoubtedly one of the best players in the game, he still requires at least a respectable effort from his supporting cast to compete for the Western Conference crown. The league’s MVP didn’t have that in Wednesday night’s 123-98 defeat to the Suns.
Jokić made more shots from the field (nine) than the rest of Denver’s starting five combined. Michael Porter Jr. finished a disastrous minus-26 in 28 minutes as he posted a 3-for-13 shooting effort. Facu Campazzo made just one of seven shots, and the delightfully-pesky guard had no answer for Chris Paul throughout the evening. Aaron Gordon was largely invisible. There was no Austin Rivers game in sight. After largely cruising past Portland, a depleted Denver squad is running out of gas.
It’s a true shame we won’t get to see Jamal Murray in this series. Denver has a serious creation problem without Murray on the floor, relying on a cobbled-together guard group with little burst or physicality. Jokić can sling passes with the best of them, and he’s a legitimately brilliant playmaker. But Murray adds a different dynamic than Jokić directing traffic around the foul line. Murray’s downhill burst and isolation ability could have created a shootout in Round 2 rather than the current mismatch on display.
But perhaps even Murray on the floor wouldn’t yield a different result through the first two games of this series. Phoenix has been firing on all cylinders since the second half of Game 4 against the Lakers, ripping off five straight victories as it increasingly looks like the Western Conference favorite. And while seeing Phoenix in the Finals for the first time since 1993 would be a bit jarring, the Suns’ current performance isn’t exactly an anomaly. Phoenix posted the league’s No. 2 offensive rating since the All-Star break. It sports an impressively deep rotation, and Monty Williams is one of the league’s top coaches. With Chris Paul healthy, this isn’t some nice story; it’s a near juggernaut.
We should stop for a moment to appreciate Paul’s brilliance as he shreds Denver. The Point God is a plus-49 in 66 minutes through two games. He tallied 15 assists on Wednesday, and he’s committed just one turnover in both games combined. Paul has spent the first half of each game in probe mode, feeding Deandre Ayton and getting Phoenix’s role players open looks. And when the moment calls for it, Paul strikes. He’s pinning Campazzo or Jokić on his hip in the pick-and-roll, converting floaters or pitching lobs to Ayton with ease. Paul Millsap and Porter are getting torched in isolation. Paul looks as good as he has since Game 5 of the 2018 Western Conference finals, before his hamstring injury precipitated a premature exit from Houston. Perhaps the Rockets would still be alive in the 2021 playoffs had they not been so quick to deal Paul. Phoenix is the ultimate recipient of Daryl Morey’s blunder.
Can Denver slow a rolling Phoenix squad when this series heads to Denver on Friday night? It’s certainly within the realm of possibility. Inserting Monte Morris or Will Barton into the starting lineup could provide added scoring punch. A friendly home environment should lead to better three-point outcomes, and the inverse could apply to Phoenix against a hostile crowd. There’s a chance Jokić recognizes the urgency of the situation and erupts early, though that may not necessarily be in his nature. There are some paths to victory for the Nuggets’ in Game 3, though it will require an adjustment from Denver coach Michael Malone as well as his star player.
It seems increasingly likely Jokić will exit the playoffs around a week after winning MVP, though we shouldn’t view Denver’s potential elimination as some kind of Dirk Nowitzki situation. This series is more an indictment on Denver’s roster sans Murray, and more than anything, it’s an endorsement of Phoenix’s potency with a healthy Paul. The Suns are playing their best basketball of the season at the right time. Ayton and Devin Booker are playing like legitimate co-stars in their first taste of the playoffs. We won’t throw a parade featuring owner Robert Sarver quite yet. But the Suns could very well be the Western Conference representative in the Finals this time next month.
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