FOX Sports writers are providing takeaways from games throughout the NBA playoffs. Here are their thoughts from Monday.
Nuggets 97, Suns 87: Nuggets exposing Suns’ depth issues
The Denver Nuggets are showing the NBA world that they have as much of a case as anyone to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy in June.
Bold? Only to people who aren’t following what this team is doing. Trailing 73-70 in Game 2 with the Phoenix Suns, Denver head coach Michael Malone said his team was going to have to win with defense on a night where the Nuggets shot 7-for-27 from 3.
That defense received some criticism and doubt entering the postseason. The Nuggets entered the playoffs at 15th in the NBA in defensive rating at 113.5.
In the final 12 minutes inside Ball Arena on Monday night, the Nuggets won the war, swarming Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and the Suns defensively, and holding Phoenix to 14 points to secure a 97-87 victory, taking a commanding 2-0 lead as the series heads to the desert.
Malone passionately expressed his plea to his team to defend as hard as they ever have in his TNT interview in between the third and fourth quarter, and that’s exactly what came to fruition in the final frame. The Suns shot 0-for-9 to start the frame, with Booker and Durant combining to shoot 6-for-18 from the floor. We’ll get to the issues for Phoenix in a few moments.
But three things stood out about Denver’s victory:
Nikola Jokic absolutely balled out and his team followed the gutsy nature, tough finishing ability and will to win in the final stretch. He played like the back-to-back Most Valuable Player award winner that he is, scoring 26 of his game-high 39 points in the second half while shooting 17-of-30 from the floor, adding 16 rebounds and five assists.
“Neither team shot it well and this was a tight game, but you cannot think about that,” Jokic said in his TNT postgame interview. “You have to try to do what you need to do to win the game. Our defense was amazing and we found a way. Even the shots they made were contested.”
Jokic was the difference in the critical possessions, and it’s clear he’s got the edge on Deandre Ayton and the Suns. They do not have a formula to stop him in any situation, and forget about the ball screen coverage when the 28-year-old from Yugoslavia gets involved in those actions. Phoenix really has its hands full with finding a way to stop him.
We have said earlier in the playoffs that this Denver team’s title hope could end up hinging on Jamal Murray’s production level. On Monday, Murray had his worst game of the playoffs at 0-for-9 from 3-point territory and 3-for-15 from the floor. With Booker going for 35 points on the flip side, one would have thought Phoenix surely would have the edge. But in the fourth quarter, we saw the distinct advantage the Nuggets have on the Suns that isn’t going to change in this series: complementary shot-making. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope picked up the slack on the perimeter for his teammate and set the tone to the series-changing fourth quarter, drilling back-to-back triples to start the final frame to give Denver a 76-73 lead that they would not relinquish.
With Phoenix trying to put one final surge together, trimming the deficit to five at 86-81 with 3:26 left, KCP buried a 27-footer from the left wing to all but put any shot the Suns had away from the night. On Monday, it was Caldwell-Pope. On other nights, it’s been Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon or Bruce Brown providing the spark beyond Jokic and Murray. The Nuggets have so many more reliable options than Phoenix.
The defensive effort on Durant was herculean, with Denver mixing in coverages on him and just making it difficult for the superstar to find any sort of rhythm. He finished 2-for-12 from downtown and 10-for-27 from the floor. It can’t be overstated how much ownership this Nuggets team has taken on the defensive end. On Monday, we saw the championship DNA get unleashed from this team. They are the furthest thing from soft.
As for the Suns, there are three main concerns. For starters, the status of Chris Paul is up in the air. He exited the game with just under five minutes left in the third quarter after injuring his left groin trying to box out Caldwell-Pope for a rebound. Let’s tell it like it is: If Paul is missing any games, I would find it very hard to believe that the Suns win this series. They need the veteran point guard, who’s averaging nine assists per game, to be a factor.
We are also seeing the effects of Booker and Durant only playing their 16th game together since becoming teammates when the Suns acquired KD from the Nets at the trade deadline. The Nuggets defensive pressure had something to do with it, but often times particularly in the fourth quarter on Monday, Phoenix was playing too much in isolation with Booker and Durant trying to go 1 v. 1. It didn’t work.
The Suns have to dig out of a hole as a result, while Denver is two wins away from the conference finals.
76ers 119, Celtics 115: Harden goes hero in Game 1
James Harden matched his playoff career high with 45 points and hit a go-ahead, step-back 3-pointer over Al Horford with 8.7 seconds left, as the Philadelphia 76ers rallied without Joel Embiid to beat the Boston Celtics 119-115 in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal matchup on Monday night.
Tyrese Maxey added 26 points and Tobias Harris finished with 18 for the Sixers, who made 17 3-pointers in the absence of MVP finalist Embiid, who sat out with the sprained right knee he sustained in Game 3 of Philadelphia’s first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets.
Jayson Tatum led the Celtics with 39 points and 11 rebounds. Jaylen Brown added 23 points and Malcolm Brogdon finished with 20.
Boston hosts Game 2 on Wednesday night.
Harden previously scored 45 points for the Houston Rockets in a Western Conference Finals win over Golden State on May 25, 2015.
Trailing 117-115, the Celtics had one final chance and got the ball to Tatum, but he lost the ball to Paul Reed, who was fouled and hit a pair of free throws.
The game was tied at 87-all entering the back-and-forth final period.
Tatum gave the Celtics their final lead, 115-114, on a pair of free throws with 26.1 seconds left.
Before that, Boston took the shot clock down before Maxey intercepted a pass by Brogdon and drove in for a layup to put the 76ers back in front, 114-113.
Boston led 108-107 when Harden was called for an offensive foul on Horford. On the ensuing possession, Horford found Marcus Smart, who was fouled on a layup. He completed the three-point play to make it 111-107.
Maxey responded with a three-point play of his own.
The game was knotted at 102 when Brogdon got free on a fast break, took a pass from Tatum and dropped in a layup with 5:04 remaining.
After the play, P.J. Tucker appeared to swing wildly in frustration and made contact with Tatum. It led to a brief scrum that was broken up by officials.
Reed took Embiid’s place in the starting lineup, like he did with Embiid out for the final game of the Nets series. As expected, Embiid’s absence in the middle contributed to a faster pace.
Both teams used it to their advantage.
The Celtics attacked the paint, connecting on 13 of their first 14 shots. The 76ers made eight of their first 10 attempts, spacing the floor well and spreading out Boston’s defense.
Harden led the attack early for Philadelphia, hitting his first five attempts, including two 3s. Brown started 6 for 6 from the field for a Boston team that thrived without Embiid protecting the rim, going on an 11-0 run at one point.
Boston shot 74% for the half but took only a 66-63 lead into halftime after the 76ers went 11 for 19 (55%) from the 3-point line.
— The Associated Press
John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.
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