Phoenix star backcourt Devin Booker and Chris Paul led the way with 55 combined points, but it was a team-wide domination of the Nuggets as the Suns as a whole shot more. 46% of 3 and 53% of the land. Nikola Jokic valiantly tried to give his team a chance, but despite 32 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists, his Nuggets came close.
The Suns will have a chance to sweep Denver on Sunday night, when these two teams meet in Game 4, but until then, here are the three most important takeaways from Phoenix’s Game 3 victory.
1. Groundhog day
Take a look at this high pick-and-roll Phoenix who raced for Chris Paul with just under six minutes left in the fourth quarter…
Now take a look at the very next piece they performed …
Do you see a single difference? There are not any. It’s exactly the same game. Deandre Ayton sets up a big screen for Paul. Monte Morris gets lost on this screen. Nikola Jokic falls into the picture. Paul drives to the same spot on the right elbow. Rustling. Even the facade is the same with Devin Booker unfurling on the left wing.
Phoenix has played this piece over and over again throughout the course because Denver has no response to it. Jokic isn’t fast enough to play screen-level with such mediocre defensive talent around him, so Denver played against Paul for most of the night. They had no better choice than to hope that Paul, one of the greatest midrange shooters in NBA history, would miss his shots. Obviously he didn’t.
It’s a testament to Paul’s greatness, yes, but it’s also admirable brutality on Phoenix’s part. They have no shame in spamming the exact same game because they knew the opposing defense couldn’t stop it. That’s what it takes to win last minute playoff games. They identified a weakness and exploited it knowing that the Denver roster offered no viable alternatives, and the result was a win and a 3-0 lead in the series.
2. Another bad night for Aaron Gordon
Denver paid generously to acquire Aaron Gordon on the deadline, dropping not only a first-round pick but promising young prospect RJ Hampton to secure the versatile forward. The movement looked awesome when Denver was at full power. The Nuggets asked Gordon so little offensively that all he had to do was make cuts at the right time and he would get easy basket after easy basket. But in Game 2 of that series, he was limited to just six points, and on Friday night he shot 2 of 10 from the field.
It’s not his fault. It is simply a symptom of Denver’s health problems. When the Nuggets had Jamal Murray and a healthy Will Barton, the defenses couldn’t follow Gordon off the ball because they didn’t have the resources to do so. It took too much to cover Murray, Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. But with Denver so weakened by injuries, Phoenix not only had an easier time keeping up with Gordon, they slumped aggressively knowing he won’t beat. not. them as a shooter. This essentially turned Jae Crowder into an extra rim protector on Friday.
This shows just how circumstantial a role player’s success can be. Gordon was acquired to do very specific things on a very specific list. Now that the list has changed, he’s put in a position where his weaknesses are magnified. He made up for some of those weaknesses with a solid night in defense, but ultimately Denver’s injuries mean more than just missing players. They basically changed everything about how this list works.
3. Can Phoenix hold the glass?
If the Suns struggled in one area tonight, it was on the glass. Denver had a staggering 18 offensive rebounds. The Suns only had four. The gap between these teams was so big that it didn’t matter. Denver can rack up any second chance points he wants and the Nuggets will always lose because Phoenix scores on his first chance. But the rest of the playoff field isn’t as forgiving.
Right now, the Utah Jazz lead the Los Angeles Clippers 2-0 in their second-round series. If the Jazz goes about business and makes it to the Western Conference Finals, Rudy Gobert is going to cause trouble in Phoenix the same way Jokic did. The difference is, Utah is good enough for such a benefit to really matter. Lose by 14 on the offensive glass against the Jazz and you probably lose the game. Their shot is just too good to give a second chance.
It’s a story to watch as Phoenix contemplates the third round. The Suns are doing so well right now that no weakness can be glaring, and Phoenix was pretty much a league average rebounding team in the regular season. But every little flaw counts as teams advance further and further into the playoffs, and it’s one the Suns need to clean up before facing the Jazz.