The Phoenix Suns advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in 11 years Sunday night with a difficult 125-118 win over Denver who completed a four-game sweep.
The nuggets ? Well, they fought.
Paul scored 37 points and Booker added 34 in a physical match marred by MVP The expulsion of Nikola Jokic for a flagrant foul in the third quarter.
Jokic was pitched with 3:52 to go in the third and his Nuggets trailed 83-76 after his hard blow to the right of the windmill sent the ball high, but also caught Cameron Payne in the face.
Jokic said he only wanted to commit a serious foul on Payne to trigger his team.
“I wanted to change the pace of the game, I wanted to give us energy,” Jokic said. “I tried to make a hard mistake. Did I hit him? I did not know. I say sorry if I did that because I didn’t mean to hurt him or hit him on the head on purpose.
Booker took umbrage at the serious foul and struck the big man’s face before his teammates and coaches parted everyone.
“It was just an emotional game,” Booker said. “I don’t think he meant to hurt. It was just a fault of frustration. It was difficult to defend my teammate. That was all.
“I saw him go to Cam afterwards and apologize. I have played against the Joker several times. I know he is not a malicious gamer. “
Officials assessed a double technique on Jokic and Booker and after a review, ejected the MVP after improving his foul to Flagrant 2. Jokic finished with 22 points and 11 rebounds in 28 minutes.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone said he watched the game as officials considered the call “and I just assumed it would be a Flagrant 1 at worst.”
“I didn’t feel like it warranted a Flagrant 2 ejection because he made a play on the ball,” said Malone. “There’s marginal contact with Cameron Payne’s nose, I believe. So I was shocked. I’m still a little shocked that they called a Flagrant 2 and kicked out the MVP on such a game.
Suns coach Monty Williams was also surprised.
“I didn’t really think it was anything malicious,” Williams said. “At such times you have to regulate your emotions. This is what we have been talking about throughout the season.
“When replaying, we saw lifts, impacts and chases, which resulted in unnecessary and excessive contact over the shoulders and also in the face,” said team leader David Guthrie.
With their seventh straight playoff win, a franchise record, the Suns have qualified for the conference championship for the first time since 2010 – the last time they even reached the playoffs.
After knocking out LeBron James and the defending champions Lakers in the first round, the Suns quickly sent Denver out and made Jokic the first MVP to be swept in a playoff series since Magic Johnson in 1989.
Will Barton led Denver, which was led by 13 points going into the fourth quarter, with 25 points, Michael Porter Jr. added 20 and Monte Morris 19.
The Nuggets survived star Jamal Murray’s loss to a ripped ACL on April 12, taking 13 of 18 wins to close the regular season and taking care of Portland in five games in the first round.
They went further than any of the semifinalists from last year, but Murray sorely missed Murray against the loaded Suns.
“Hopefully we can start next season as fresh and healthy as possible to make this thing another race,” said Malone.
Every time the Nuggets had a run, Paul was there to stop it. His 37-point explosion was one more than his age and marked his best production in three years.
“It was a great series for him,” Morris said. “Hi Chris Paul. He played amazingly.
“He’s always had an answer for everything we’ve tried,” added Facundo Compazzo.
Booker credited Paul and his veteran leadership with transforming the Suns from a promising team in the bubble last year to a championship contender this summer.
“You can ask anyone on this team how Chris developed your game and everyone will have a long answer because he cares,” Booker said.
Thanks in large part to Paul, Jokic became the first MVP to be swept in a playoff series since the Pistons beat Magic Johnson and the Lakers in four in the NBA Finals in 1989.
Jokic’s ejection came 48 hours after an emotional pre-Game 3 celebration in which the Serbian dedicated his MVP trophy to his teammates, coaches, coaches and at the front office.
The only NBA player to have played all 72 games this season, Jokic spent the fourth quarter in his locker room as his teammates’ return without him failed.
“We’ve never been in that position all season with Nikola not being there,” Morris said shortly after fans left the arena chanting “MVP! MVP! “
Suns: Phoenix was only 2-0 down once before Booker’s 3-point pointer put the Suns on the line for good. … Paul shot 14 of 19 from the ground and made all nine free throws.
Nuggets: Murray shot one-footed jumpers ahead of the game and received a loud standing ovation when he emptied one from half-court as he walked away.