The last time the Phoenix Suns were in the postseason, they advanced all the way to the Western Conference finals. It looks like history is going to repeat itself. With a 116-102 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Friday, the Suns took a 3-0 lead in their second-round series and now appear poised to advance into the final four for the first time since 2010.
Phoenix's star backcourt of Devin Booker and Chris Paul led the way with 55 combined points, but it was a team-wide domination of the Nuggets as the Suns as a whole shot over 46 percent from 3 and 53 percent from the field. Nikola Jokic tried valiantly to give his team a chance, but despite 32 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists, his Nuggets came up well short.
The Suns will have a chance to sweep Denver on Sunday night, when these two teams meet for Game 4, but until then, here are the three most important takeaways from Phoenix's Game 3 win.
1. Groundhog Day
Take a look at this high pick-and-roll Phoenix ran for Chris Paul with just under six minutes left in the fourth quarter…
Now take a look at the very next play they ran…
Do you see a single difference? There isn't one. It's the exact same play. Deandre Ayton sets a high screen for Paul. Monte Morris gets lost on that screen. Nikola Jokic drops into the paint. Paul drives to the same spot on the right elbow. Swish. Even the window dressing is the same with Devin Booker fanning out to the left wing.
Phoenix ran this play over and over and over again down the stretch because Denver has no answer for it whatsoever. Jokic isn't quick enough to play at the level of the screen with such poor defensive talent around him, so Denver played drop coverage against Paul for most of the night. They had no better choice than hoping that Paul, one of the greatest mid-range shooters in NBA history, would just miss his shots. Obviously, he didn't.
It's a testament to Paul's greatness, yes, but it's also admirable brutality on Phoenix's part. They have no shame whatsoever in spamming the exact same play because they knew the opposing defense can't stop it. That's what it takes to win late-stage playoff games. They identified a weakness and exploited it knowing that Denver's roster offered no viable alternative, and the result was a win and a 3-0 series lead.
2. Another poor night for Aaron Gordon
Denver paid handsomely to acquire Aaron Gordon at the deadline, giving up not only a first-round pick, but promising young prospect R.J. Hampton to secure the versatile forward. The move looked great when Denver was at full strength. The Nuggets asked so little of Gordon offensively that all he had to was make properly timed cuts and he'd get easy basket after easy basket. But in Game 2 of this series he was held to just six points, and Friday night, he shot 2-of-10 from the field.
That's no fault of his own. It's simply a symptom of Denver's health issues. When the Nuggets had Jamal Murray and a fully healthy Will Barton, defenses couldn't track Gordon off of the ball because they didn't have the resources to do so. It took too much to cover Murray, Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. But with Denver so weakened by injuries, Phoenix has not only had an easier time keeping track of Gordon, they've sagged off of him aggressively knowing that he won't beat them as a shooter. It essentially turned Jae Crowder into an extra rim-protector on Friday.
It just goes to show you how circumstantial a role-player's success can be. Gordon was acquired to do very specific things on a very specific roster. Now that the roster has changed, he's being put in a position where his weaknesses are magnified. He made up for some of those weaknesses with a strong night on defense, but ultimately, Denver's injuries mean far more than just missing players. They've fundamentally changed everything about how this roster functions.
3. Can Phoenix hold up on the glass?
If the Suns struggled in one area tonight, it was on the glass. Denver pulled in a staggering 18 offensive rebounds. The Suns had only four. The gap between these teams was so big that it didn't matter. Denver can rack up all of the second-chance points it wants and the Nuggets will still lose because Phoenix scores on its first chance. But the rest of the playoff field isn't as forgiving.
Right now, the Utah Jazz lead the Los Angeles Clippers 2-0 in their second-round series. If the Jazz take care of business and reach the Western Conference finals, Rudy Gobert is going to cause problems for Phoenix in much the same way Jokic has. The difference is that Utah is good enough for such an advantage to really matter. Lose by 14 on the offensive glass to the Jazz and you're probably losing the game. Their shooting is simply too good to surrender second chances.
It's a storyline to watch as Phoenix eyes the third round. The Suns are doing so much right at the moment that no single weakness needs to be glaring, and Phoenix was roughly a league-average rebounding team in the regular season. But every little flaw counts as teams advance later and later into the postseason, and that's one the Suns have to clean up before they face the Jazz.