By Daniel Paiz
Nuggets eclipse Suns in Game 6 125-100, as Denver wins the series 4-2 and earns a spot in the Western Conference Finals starting next week. Nikola Jokic put up a triple-double with 32 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds, Jamal Murray dropped 26 points and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope showed out with 21 points for Denver.
Cameron Payne had a career night with 31 points for Phoenix, while Kevin Durant adds 23 points and Devin Booker underperforms with 12 points. The Nuggets win the Western Conference Semifinals 4 games to 2 and look to get revenge against either Los Angeles or Golden State in five days or so.
Game 6 recap
Denver came out moving the ball and keeping the pace up, attacking the paint with Deandre Ayton out due to an injury. It’s a lot of back and forth, but the Nuggets have set the tone in terms of a quick pace. The Suns are getting some buckets from Cameron Payne, which they sorely need as Durant is starting out cold and Booker can’t do it alone. For the Nuggets, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has 17 points in the first quarter, which leads Denver. Bruce Brown has a huge block on Booker, and the Nuggets have a 17-0 run in the final three minutes of the opening quarter.
As the second quarter ticks on, Denver continues to attack the paint, and also is picking different spots all across the floor to shoot from with success. The Suns seem to be a bit stunned with the 20+ lead the Nuggets have, and Denver is ensuring the momentum stays on their end. Denver is keeping up the defensive effort, which at the 3-minute mark of the second, the Suns have committed seven turnovers while Denver hasn’t recorded one yet. The high pace of things is leading Denver to making smart passes, being patient with the ball, and making the Suns have to work at each end of the court. Jamal Murray is going off in the second as well with 18 points at the half; meanwhile, only Payne is hitting buckets consistently for the home team. 81-51 halftime lead for the top-seeded Nuggets.
The Suns start out on a 12-4 run to start the third quarter, slowly chipping away. The pendulum of momentum has swung to the middle, moving away from the Nuggets and slowly back towards the Suns. Denver has to move the ball around and stop one pass and watching on offense. Denver and Phoenix are going back and forth in the middle of the third, as Denver is starting to move the ball around more. 103-76 to end the third, this last quarter needs to be consistent defensive effort and good passing to close this series out.
So far, anyone not named Cameron Payne can’t hit any buckets for the Suns in the fourth. Denver keeps moving the ball around, largely keeping the lead around 25-30 points as the clock ticks down. Nikola Jokic grabbed his tenth rebound, earning an 11th playoff triple double; Jokic becomes the sixth player in NBA history to have three triple-doubles in a playoff series. Denver wins 125-100 and punch their ticket to the next round. 62 points in the paint, grabbing 10 steals, and outrebounding 41-29 are a few reasons why Denver closed things out in Phoenix.
Preparing for the Conference Finals
Denver sets an NBA playoff record for most points by a road team at halftime with 81 points. This happened from consistent defensive pressure, ball movement, and mostly being patient and taking what the opponent gave them. The passing was crisp offensively, while the defensive pressure led to 14 Phoenix turnovers. It was a fantastic flow of offense and defense impacting each other. The rhythm was largely there all night. This kind of chemistry and effort has to be there in the Western Conference Finals, and there’s something else that must be present in the third round: making lineup adjustments.
This eight-man rotation for Denver has worked so far against Phoenix and for the latter part of the series against Minnesota. Golden State and Los Angeles are neither of those teams, and both coaching staffs are not afraid to see who on the bench will fit a situation. Outside of blowout wins against the Suns and Wolves, Denver has not gone to their larger bench.
One of the biggest kudos given to the Nuggets all season is the depth this one seed has. Coach Michael Malone has figured out that playing Aaron Gordon as a backup center with the second unit has worked and kept things going on both sides of the ball. If Denver has Jokic, Gordon, and/or Jeff Green get into foul trouble, who Malone goes to on the bench will impact how momentum shifts. Zeke Nnaji, Peyton Watson, Vlatko Cancar, Deandre Jordan, and Thomas Bryant are all bigs on the bench he can go to. The first three guys can score but are not physically impactful on defense. The latter two can make a defensive impact, but offensively are hit or miss.
It would be ideal if the Nuggets can continue to rely on the current eight, but things rarely go to plan. Malone might have to expand this rotation, both due to foul trouble and to make things disruptive for their opponents. It will all depend on who they end up playing, and ideally the other conference semifinal goes to seven games. Either way, Denver is clicking on all cylinders, and have to keep up the efforts they made in this close-out Game 6.
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