The Nuggets' second-half issues against the Suns persisted as the team suffered a 123-98 defeat in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals.
Nikola Jokić posted 24 points, 13 rebounds, six assists to lead the Nuggets. Chris Paul sparked Phoenix’s win with 17 points, 15 assists, and five boards.
Denver will now aim to regroup in Game 3 (8 p.m. MT, ESPN, KKSE 92.5FM) in front of what should be an electric crowd at Ball Arena – especially with Jokić set to receive his Most Valuable Player award Friday.
Here are the takeaways:
Thrill is back
Despite the result, Nuggets fans had to be encouraged by the return of Barton III after being out for almost two months with a hamstring strain. While the veteran guard was on a minute restriction, he showed why Denver has sorely missed him during his time out.
Will Barton was electric at times in the first half, using his athleticism to notch a block on one end before emphatically slamming on Jae Crowder a few moments later. Barton would finish the night with 10 points, three rebounds on 4 of 8 shooting.
If Barton can build on this performance, along with potentially playing more, he could be the difference in Game 3 in Denver.
The Nuggets posted the lowest first-half point total by any team in the 2021 playoffs with 42 on 36.7 percent shooting. It didn’t get much better in the final two quarters of the game.
Denver is struggling to find scoring options outside of Jokić, which is limiting his effectiveness. The team missed nine of its 11 opening field goals and struggled with Phoenix’s pressure in the second quarter. The Suns got three steals and forced five turnovers from the visitors, disrupting their momentum. It took the Nuggets three quarters until it found a second double-digit scorer in Barton III. The team would finish with three on the night: Jokić, Barton III, and Paul Millsap (11 points).
While some of the Nuggets’ struggles are down to poor shot selection, some of the issues can also be attributed to missing personnel.
The Nuggets might have gotten a boost with the return of Barton III, but the team is still dealing with several significant absences – including Jamal Murray and PJ Dozier. Those issues are now also compounded by the recent back injury to Michael Porter Jr., who was clearly impacted by his tightness ailment. Against arguably the best defensive team in the NBA, the Nuggets needed all of their weapons. At the present moment, they have three players either out or impacted with injuries and who accounted for 47.7 points per game combined during the regular season.
More aggression needed on defense
Although Denver’s issues in scoring can be explained, its efforts on the other end are puzzling.
Phoenix searingly got whatever it wanted on offense, shooting 47.9 percent from the field – with the same percentage from downtown. More worrying, the home team only had seven turnovers on the night. If the Nuggets want to get back into the series, they have to regain their focus and sense of urgency defensively.
Paul appeared to have an open lane on almost every foray into the paint and dropped an absurd number of dimes without a single turnover. The Hall of Famer was brilliant on the night, but the Nuggets still need to find ways to push the 36-year-old out of his comfort zone in Game 3.