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Nuggets-Suns Game 2: Nikola Jokić Outduels Devin Booker

The Denver Nuggets outfought the Phoenix Suns in Game 2 and earned a 97-87 win. Devin Booker was brilliant throughout en route to 35 points on 14-29 shooting and six assists, but Nikola Jokić was golden for the Nuggets. The reigning MVP scored 39 points on 17-30 shooting with 16 rebounds, five assists, and two steals. 

Denver won a fast-paced shootout in Game 1 and a physical defensive fight in Game 2 to take their 2-0 series lead. Can Phoenix gain traction, or are they destined to meekly bow out of the playoffs for the second straight year?

Nuggets-Suns Game 2: Nikola Jokić Outduels Devin Booker

Devin Booker Stars for the Suns in the First Half

This was a surprisingly low-scoring contest from the opening tip. Kevin Durant started slow, shooting just 2-8 in the first quarter for four points. Booker created most of Phoenix’s offense as the primary ball handler. He assumed control of the game as Phoenix led 21-18 at the end of the first quarter. Jokić kept the Nuggets afloat with his balletic post moves and tiptoe set shots. 

The Nuggets started the second quarter with Aaron Gordon at center and confused the Suns by switching on defense. Denver got out in transition on a quick 8-0 run. Phoenix was scoreless for the first 3:45 of the second before Durant banked in a three. 

Both teams increased their physicality as their scoring struggles continued. Booker was brilliant as the Suns’ lifeline (17 first half points on 7-14 shooting, 3-4 from 3).

Jamal Murray struggled after his brilliant Game 1, scoring just four points on 1-7 shooting at the half. Phoenix took a 42-40 lead into halftime despite Durant’s continued struggles.

The Nuggets and Nikola Jokic Pull Away from the Suns in the Second Half

Denver’s defense sprung some leaks in the third quarter after being unfazed by Phoenix’s pick-and-roll attack. Chris Paul started to find the mark from midrange, and the Suns were swarming on defense. Unfortunately for Paul, he suffered his annual postseason injury in the third as well, leaving with 4:32 left in the quarter with a groin injury. They took an eight-point lead midway through the third before Jokić found Porter on a transition leak-out for an and-one layup.

Jokić (18 points in the third) displayed atypical aggression scoring to keep Denver competitive. He traded buckets with the red-hot Booker to keep Denver within three to end the quarter. 

Jokić sat the first 2:35 of the fourth. Phoenix went scoreless despite Booker playing the entire time while Kentavious Caldwell-Pope hit a three. Jokic returned and immediately set Caldwell-Pope up for another three to give Denver a 76-73 lead they wouldn’t relinquish. The Nuggets didn’t dominate, but they answered any attempt by Phoenix to gain momentum. Phoenix’s intensity wilted as Denver earned their 2-0 series lead.

Nuggets-Suns: Game 3 Preview

The sun may be setting early in Phoenix. Recent history suggests Paul could miss significant time. Anthony Davis was essentially knocked out of the playoffs in 2021 with a Grade 1 groin strain. (He attempted to play in Game 6 vs. Phoenix but left after just five minutes). Booker missed nearly two months with a groin strain earlier this season. The Suns, already thin after the Durant trade, are now downright scrawny.

Paul’s injury makes it even more important to find an offensive rhythm for Durant. Getting him fully integrated into Phoenix’s offense has proven futile. They cannot hope to develop the type of chemistry the other teams in the postseason possess after Durant played just eight regular-season games with Phoenix.

There are avenues Monty Williams can explore, however. Even if Paul is able to play, some of his pick-and-roll touches should be shifted to Durant. Jokić happily conceded midrange jumpers to Paul while defending Booker more aggressively, and even a struggling Durant would cause more disruption to Denver’s defense. Williams can let Durant play center when Denver goes small with Jokić on the bench. A Cameron PayneDamion LeeJosh OkogieTorrey Craig-Durant lineup might give Durant more space to attack.

Durant must be paired with a knockdown shooter when Booker sits. That could be Lee, Landry Shamet, or Terrence Ross. Lee might be the best option since he’s played the most minutes in this series of the three (he shot 0-5 tonight). Lee was the best shooter of the three during the regular season at 44.2%, although he shot a lower volume than the other two. He’s also the most playoff-proven defender after spending last season with the Golden State Warriors. Whoever it is, Durant desperately needs a consistent shooting threat so the Nuggets cannot load up on his isolations.

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