Mile High Cypher Report 2.2: Nuggets fail to take advantage of shorthanded Suns in Game 3, losing 121-114

By Daniel Paiz

Nuggets fail to take advantage of shorthanded Suns in Game 3, losing 121-114. Chris Paul was ruled out on Thursday for Friday’s Game 3 showdown with a groin injury. There is no determined timetable for the veteran guard’s return. The Suns relied on Devin Booker’s 47 points and Kevin Durant’s 39 points to outscore Denver’s top players.

Nikola Jokic recorded a triple double tonight as he dropped 30 points, 17 rebounds and 17 assists; Jamal Murray chipped in 32 points and Michael Porter Jr. added 21 points that largely arrived in the second half. Denver again stuck with eight players in their rotation, while the Suns took a chance on playing 10 players with Paul out of the lineup. Denver now leads the series 2-1 with Game 4 on Sunday, May 7th 2023.

Game 3 Recap

For a second straight game, Phoenix is going to their bench a whole lot more than Denver. The Nuggets are locked into using Jeff Green, Bruce Brown, and Christian Braun. Meanwhile, the Suns are going deeper in part because of Chris Paul’s absence. The second quarter was all the home team, as the Suns attacked the paint, and Denver did not move on defense, did not attack the boards on either side of the floor, and did not move the ball around on offense. A big lead at halftime gave Denver a challenge for the third quarter: change the game plan, or see if Phoenix goes cold without making necessary adjustments.

The effort level changed out of halftime for Denver. Aaron Gordon got going on both sides of the ball, Denver made more defensive stops, and the game was primed for a fourth quarter slugfest of back-and-forth shots and hustle. The Suns and the Nuggets seem content to largely rely on Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, Nikola Jokic, and Jamal Murray respectively in the final quarter. There’s been some effort to get the ball away from Phoenix’s two top scorers, but the road team is not moving the ball around enough to force the home team to stay honest defensively.

For whatever reason, perhaps it was a change of scenery, perhaps it was a lack of lineup and defensive adjustments, but Denver didn’t respond in the fourth. Part of it was the two-man game largely between Jokic and Murray. Part of it was a lack of defensive adjustments, largely not forcing Phoenix to rely on scoring from their other guys.

What’s baffling about some of this game is that Denver as a team grabbed more rebounds, had more assists, and actually scored more in the paint than Phoenix. However, the Suns shot better from the field, hit their free throws, and had slightly fewer turnovers. Game 4 will be an interesting watch to see if the home team can get more points from the rest of the squad, and if the road team efficiently moves the ball around consistently.

Keys to Game 4

What has to be frustrating for Denver’s players, coaches, and fans alike is not so much the 86 combined points from Durant and Booker. There are two reasons to be annoyed. First, those two guys combined for 86, and won by SEVEN points. Seven!

If both of those guys are kept to 35 apiece Denver is up 3-0. Secondly, Denver didn’t make needed adjustments in order to challenge the Suns to beat them another way. The free throw line area is usually where Chris Paul makes his living. Tonight, the Suns realized that anybody could attack the paint and drive to this midrange area, and then decide from there to shoot or make a pass that immobilized the defense all night.

Denver didn’t change from man defense against the Suns. There was also a catch-22 vicious cycle of bad offense leading to more pressure for the Nuggets’ defense, leading back to poor offensive possessions. The second half for Denver was compiled of a screen or two at the three-point line, and then taking a shot from three, or playing a two-man game that let the defense sit back. It’s easier said than done to keep moving the ball around effectively, especially in the playoffs. But when you only make one or two moves on offense and bail the defense out, the Suns can grab the board and ironically use transition offense to hurt Denver on the other end.

Aaron Gordon showed some pluck in the third quarter, scoring and disrupting things on the boards and on defense. Michael Porter Jr looked disinterested on occasion, which is baffling seeing that he had 21 points. Murray and Jokic were exhausted. This seems odd to have to point out, but Coach Malone isn’t taking advantage of the bench depth Denver has. These are pro athletes, and sure, a majority of that Denver bench hasn’t played beyond a few minutes in the first round against Minnesota. But if you have guys you can throw at Phoenix depth-wise that will tire them out, not relying on them or finding combinations that work is confounding. Look at how the Suns played 10 guys versus Denver’s eight:

The Suns bench only outscored Denver’s bench 22-20. Nobody for the fourth seeded team scored double figures after Durant and Booker. Deandre Ayton had NINE rebounds and FOUR points. That’s abysmal. If the Suns had lost this game, that would’ve been a much higher point of conversation.

Denver has DeAndre Jordan (6’11), Zeke Nnaji (6’9), Payton Watson (6’7), and Vlatko Cancar (6’8) sitting on their bench. If Jock Landale is getting 22 minutes for Phoenix, why would you not use some of these guys in with Gordon, Green, Jokic in some rotation to disrupt the paint and/or hassle the other team? The lineup selections have to be altered for Denver to make things harder for the home team. Stealing Game 4 on the road is paramount at this point if the Nuggets aren’t going to force somebody not named Booker or Durant to beat them.


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