2023 Playoffs: West Conf. Semifinal | Nuggets vs. Suns

5 takeaways from Nuggets' dominant close-out win in Game 6

Denver dominates in Game 6 to reach the West finals as Phoenix faces an offseason filled with questions.

Nikola Jokic posts his 3rd triple-double of the series as Denver builds a 30-point halftime lead and finishes Phoenix in Game 6.

PHOENIX — Two years in a row, right here in this building, the Phoenix Suns watched helplessly while the visiting team took whatever it wanted in a Western Conference semifinals elimination game.

Denver served as the latest visitors to power through Phoenix, zipping to a 30-point halftime lead Thursday that triggered the sellout crowd of 17,071 at Footprint Center to boo the dejected home squad off the court at intermission. In the end, the Suns fell 4-2 in the series, dropping Game 6 125-100 to the Nuggets in a lopsided affair, reminiscent of their shocking elimination at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks in Game 7 of the 2022 West semis.

In both situations, Phoenix trailed by 30 points at halftime of a win-or-go-home contest at home. Star guard Devin Booker scored 11 points and 12 points, respectively, in those losses.

“It was deflating to see them score like that, running down the floor getting easy buckets,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “That falls on my shoulders not having us ready to play at the highest level in the biggest game of the year. I’m not quite sure if I can compare [last year’s finish to 2023]. They both bring bad feelings about the game and what you’re trying to accomplish. Neither game feels good.”

Apparently, the home crowd wearing “Rally the Valley” t-shirts agreed and started bolting for the exits with 8:35 left to play.

Denver, meanwhile, became the NBA’s first team to advance to the conference finals. It awaits the winner of the Los Angeles Lakers-Golden State Warriors series and will host Game 1 of the West finals Tuesday night at Ball Arena (8:30 ET, TNT). The Nuggets handled their business on the road despite exiting their Thursday morning shootaround after approximately 15 minutes due to “a little bug going around the team right now,” according to coach Michael Malone. Shortly after shootaround, the club placed Jamal Murray on the injury report with an illness.

Still, that slight bout with adversity never changed the visiting team’s psyche heading into Game 6.

“I don’t want to be a counterpuncher [early in Game 6],” Malone said. “Let’s come out and let’s hit them first. Let’s try to take control. Our mentality was [to] take it. We wanted to go out and strike first.”

Mission accomplished.

We’ll get into Denver’s hit-first mentality and more in our five takeaways from Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals.

Nuggets’ first-half onslaught

Malone credited Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for setting a physical tone on defense early in Game 5. In Game 6, Caldwell-Pope impacted the outcome on offense from the outset, tying a postseason career-high with 21 points (all of which came in the first half). In the opening frame, Caldwell-Pope lit up Phoenix for 17 points, outscoring both Booker and Kevin Durant combined, as Denver ended the first quarter on a 17-0 run.

Caldwell-Pope and former two-time Kia MVP Nikola Jokic came together for 31 points in the first quarter with the duo going a combined 13-for-16 to outscore the entire home team by themselves.

“The confidence is there. It’s all about leading, getting out there and showing them,” Caldwell-Pope said. “I told some of my teammates I hate being disrespected. I just wanted to be aggressive and just make them guard.”

That quick start helped Denver run up its largest halftime lead in franchise postseason history (30 points), and its 81 first-half points were the most in the first half by a road team in playoff history. Caldwell-Pope and Jokic can take credit as the catalysts, having poured in 31 of Denver’s 44 points in the opening frame.

Interestingly, in the first quarters of Game 5 and 6, Caldwell-Pope finished at plus-29.

More hardware for Jokic?

First, let’s get this weird stat out of the way. Jokic ranks as just the second player in NBA history to log 300 points, 100 rebounds and 75 assists through the first 10 games of the postseason, joining Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson (who first accomplished the feat in 1962). In Game 6, the big man also logged his 11th career postseason triple-double (32 points, 10 rebounds, 12 assists), which ties Jason Kidd for the fourth-most in NBA history.

Coming off triple-double No. 5 in his last nine playoff games, Jokic sat in a corner of the locker room after Thursday’s win scrolling through his phone. He had a bag of ice wrapped around his right wrist while holding another pack of ice in his left hand and had both feet submerged deep into a red bucket filled with ice. That’s the sign of a night’s hard work, and if he keeps it up, you can bet Jokic will be a prime candidate to win the Earvin “Magic” Johnson Trophy as the Western Conference finals MVP.

In the conference semifinals, Jokic averaged 34.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 10.3 assists per game, joining Russell Westbrook (2017 Western Conference first round) and LeBron James (2017 NBA Finals) as the only players in league history to average a 30-plus point triple-double in a playoff series. Denver is 31-3 in games that Jokic notches a triple-double.

He now awaits the winner of the Lakers-Warriors series.

“Both teams beat us in previous years,” Jokic said. “There are no favorites. I think all the teams left are very talented.”

With solid depth, a healthy Jamal Murray and a 2-time Kia MVP, Denver is playing better than any team remaining in the playoffs.

Ayton’s absence noticeable

Phoenix announced approximately two hours before Thursday’s tipoff that center Deandre Ayton would sit out of Game 6 due to a rib contusion suffered in the Game 5 loss in Denver.

Ayton absorbed a knee to the rib area from Bruce Brown in the opening quarter of Game 5 and subbed out at the 2:50 mark before re-entering the game with 8:15 left in the second quarter.

“He was down for a minute,” Williams said. “He just weathered it, and it got progressively worse for him in the last couple of days. Midday today, I got the medical report. That was that.”

Ayton finished Game 5 with 14 points on 7-for-12 shooting with nine rebounds (and a team-worst minus-21). The 24-year-old averaged 10.8 ppg and 8.2 rpg in the West semis, a drop off from both his regular-season averages (18 ppg, 10 rpg) and his first-round stats (16 ppg, 11.2 rpg)

Williams benched Ayton for the final 4:57 of the team’s Game 3 win, and the coach also sat the center last season when he was ineffective in Game 7 of the conference semifinals against Dallas. Even though Ayton signed a four-year contract last July worth $133 million, you have to wonder whether the big man has suited up in his last game with Phoenix.

The Nuggets were already dominating the paint this series leading into Thursday, though. They held a plus-26 advantage in total rebounds (270-228), a plus-42 edge in points in the paint (270-228) and lead in second-chance points (62-46), too. That only continued in the decisive Game 6 with the Nuggets outrebounding the Suns 41-29, while winning in second-chance points (18-7) and points in the paint (62-46).

“Not having D.A. as a roller tonight, you could see the difference in their pick-and-roll coverage,” Williams said. “They were stealing out to shooters more tonight, and they were actually in the passing lanes a bit more.”

Booker a no-show after loss

Booker left Footprint Center without speaking to reporters after Thursday’s game, and once team officials opened the locker room, the 26-year-old guard’s stall was empty. Understandably, Booker harbored some disappointment after losing the third elimination game of his career. He’s averaged 14 ppg on 30.6% shooting and is 1-for-14 on 3-pointers in those defeats.

Booker entered Game 6 ranked No. 1 in the NBA in postseason scoring, averaging a postseason career-best 35.9 ppg. The three-time All-Star notched 359 points and 71 assists in the first 10 games of the playoffs, joining Michael Jordan as the only players to score 350-plus points with 70-plus assists through the first 10 games of a single postseason.

Against the Nuggets in Game 6, Booker went 4-for-13 for 12 points with two turnovers.

What’s next for Suns?

New governor Mat Ishbia took over the Suns in February, telling The Associated Press then: “I’m going to spend a lot of time listening and learning, then make the adjustments to make this not only one of the best organizations in the NBA, but also one of the best places to work.”

That could lead to changes to the roster, the front office and even the coaching staff this offseason. Ishbia demonstrated a commitment early on to doing whatever necessary to place Phoenix on the winning track, giving the front office the green light for the club to bring in Durant via a blockbuster Februrary trade. So, everything seems to be on the table this upcoming offseason for a Phoenix team that reached the NBA Finals in 2021, before falling in the conference semifinals in each of the last two seasons.

That’s partly why Ayton’s return for 2023-24 seems iffy at this point. There’s also a chance the team could part ways with future Hall of Fame point guard Chris Paul, who is on a partially guaranteed contract for next season. Theoretically, the team could move both players this offseason to land Draft picks and perhaps a few pieces to bolster the supporting cast around Booker and Durant.

Paul suffered a left groin injury in Game 2 of this series and didn’t play again in the series. The 38-year-old averaged 12.4 ppg, 7.4 apg and 1.7 spg in his seven playoff games in 2023.

“We’ve got a good foundation and infrastructure we can build on and move on from this, learn from it, get better from it,” said Durant, who scored 23 points on 8-for-19 shooting in Game 6.

“I’m sure as the summer and offseason starts to progress, we’ll figure that out a little bit more. We’ll see [what happens]. I feel like every year it’s the GM, coaches’ and players’ job to get better and find ways to adapt and become a better team.”

Phoenix needs to add more quality depth pieces this offseason, especially another big man to deal with Nikola Jokic.

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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