The Phoenix Suns ran away with another win in their semifinal matchup against the Denver Nuggets Wednesday night, a 123-98 Game 2 blowout that put them two victories away from reaching the Western Conference finals. The Suns got tremendous production out of all their starters, including a 17-point, 15-assist performance from Chris Paul in the win. After the Nuggets loss, coach Mike Malone voiced his disappointment with his team's performance.
"I felt we quit tonight, which is something you never want to see," Malone said, via ESPN. "So I guess for Game 3, I'm just going to try to find guys that will at least go out there and leave it all on the line. I may have a hard time coming up with five guys that fill that, but these two games, these second halves have really been disappointing, and that's an understatement."
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The Suns outscored the Nuggets 72-56 in the second half, as Denver struggled to get into any sort of rhythm offensively to challenge Phoenix. No other starter outside of MVP Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. put up more than a single point in the second half. Aaron Gordon and Facundo Campazzo combined for zero points on zero shot attempts after halftime. The Nuggets entered the third quarter down 52-42 to the Suns, and never got to within single digits of their lead at any point in the second half.
It's similar to what happened in Game 1, where Phoenix outscored Denver 65-47 and ran away with the win. Malone felt the Nuggets showed no sense of urgency after being down 10 points at the half.
"I saw one team that wanted to be here, that played with a purpose and urgency, and one team that did not want to be here and played with no urgency," Malone said. "And that's why we got our ass kicked. ... We had a lot of guys play really bad tonight. And then we allowed the impact of not making the shot to affect the other end, and it was really -- this was just an embarrassing performance all the way around, top to bottom."
Jokic echoed the same sentiment of being disappointed in the team's performance, but he wasn't so quick to say his teammates gave up.
"I don't think so that guys quit," Jokic said. "When you're losing a lot, you can always kind of put your head down. ... But I'm not sure that we quit. I didn't quit."
Jokic put up 24 points and 16 rebounds, and was unable to receive any significant help from his teammates over the course of the game. However, one bright spot that Denver can find solace in was the return of guard Will Barton to the rotation. Barton had been sidelined since April 23 with a hamstring injury, and while on a minutes restriction, put up 10 points and three assists off the bench. It's a positive note from an ugly loss to see that Barton is able to make an impact on the Nuggets, who are still incredibly thin in the backcourt without star guard Jamal Murray.
But for Malone, it was just another sticking point of how disappointing the team's loss was.
"That was probably the only silver lining to a really rough night all the way around, was Will Barton, who hasn't played in over seven weeks, in his first game goes out there, gives you 10 and three ... and he hated me when I took him out because he had reached his minute restriction, I understand that," Malone said. "I just told our players it's embarrassing that a guy that hasn't been able to play for seven weeks was out there leaving it all on the line, and I don't think anybody else did."
Malone isn't wrong. Barton finished with more points off the bench in 16 minutes than Austin Rivers and Campazzo combined, and those two starters played well over 20 minutes. The game got so out of hand that the fans inside the Phoenix Suns Arena started chanting "Suns in 4." Given the way the Nuggets have played in the last two games, it's completely justifiable as to why the fans would be chanting that, but we've already seen once already this postseason that a 2-0 lead isn't safe.
While the Suns aren't the Mavericks, who don't have the same level of talent as this team, there is still plenty of time for the Nuggets to get back into this series, especially considering Denver is no stranger from playing from behind in the postseason. Last year in the bubble, the Nuggets overcame being down 3-1 in a series twice to advance to the Western Conference finals. So if there was a team able to climb out of a hole, it's the Nuggets.
However, the circumstances are different. Murray isn't available to pull off some late-game heroics, and the Suns have really shown no flaws thus far in the postseason. Denver can still get back in this series, especially with the next two games being at home, but the margin for error is razor thin. Malone also noted that just because Denver has home-court advantage for the next two games, it doesn't mean they can coast to a couple wins.
"And you can't use, 'Hey, we're going home for Game 3,' as something you can rely upon," Malone said. "We have a great crowd, but if we play like this, they're going to boo us off the court, and rightfully so."
Denver hosts Phoenix for Game 3 on Friday.