Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns is congratulated by Deandre Ayton #22 after a basket in Game Three of the Western Conference second-round playoff series at Ball Arena on June 11, 2021 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
DENVER — The Phoenix Suns are reaching their final form at the right time.
A team-oriented, hardworking mentality has helped the group blossom into a ruthless monster, one that grinds the opponent down.
Making up five points of a deficit against them feels like 15 when they’re in control of the game, something they do so well.
The flow of the game will tell you one thing and the scoreboard another, potentially suggesting Phoenix doesn’t have a firm grip on the way a game is taking shape, but these guys are rarely off it.
The Denver Nuggets played their best game of the series, and it meant the Suns didn’t have an opening to strike as soon as they did in the first two games.
But the chance to step on the Nuggets’ throats still presented itself, and once it did, Phoenix’s foot was right there on Denver’s neck in a 116-102 win to take a 3-0 series lead.
“I just thought we played with a relentless attitude tonight,” head coach Monty Williams said. “That’s been who we are, who we have been all season long.”
At the 4:38 mark of the third quarter, Nuggets MVP center Nikola Jokic scored to make it 73-66 Suns. That basket would start a streak of 10 straight scoring possessions between the two teams. It was the best offensive spurt from Denver of the series, but all they were doing was trading buckets.
Once those stopped for the Nuggets, the Suns kept coming. JaMychal Green’s shot was blocked by Cam Johnson and Johnson hit a 3 on the other end 11 seconds later.
After Devin Booker hit a pull-up with under two seconds remaining in the third quarter, a 6-0 Suns run that had four contributed by Dario Saric to open the fourth quarter put Phoenix up 20.
A few minutes prior, it felt like the Nuggets were finding a groove. Nope. Now Saric and Johnson were making plays after a half-dozen of their teammates were earlier, so guess what, Denver is screwed. Game over.
To that point, Booker shouted out the team’s depth when asked about the Suns’ ability to wear teams down, and it was the third straight game where everyone’s impact in orange was felt.
“The defensive side of the ball has been tremendous, the third quarter, holding them to 21 points,” Williams said. “I thought that gave us a lot of confidence and the guys are just making plays for each other, playing with a great deal of energy and force.”
The Nuggets briefly fought back with a 7-0 run before Chris Paul scored or assisted on the Suns’ next 13 points. His pair of midrange jumpers sent a good chunk of the Nuggets crowd home early, with 4:58 left and the Suns up 19. Again, while the scoreboard might suggest there’s still an opportunity left, that was not the case. And all those fans beating traffic knew it.
It was the game in the postseason that embodied what the Suns are about the most, and if you think about it, they’ve taken on personality traits from their All-Star backcourt.
Paul had 27 points, six rebounds, eight assists, three steals and two turnovers. Booker added 28 points, six rebounds and four assists.
The Nuggets keep changing defensive coverages on those two, just like the Los Angeles Lakers did, and the duo continuously shows an ability to eventually break them down.
Because of the Suns’ No. 1 defense in the postseason, the formula to beating Phoenix is really complicated when those two with the ball are dissecting the way they have been.
Booker was a stellar shot-maker, repeatedly finding cracks in the Nuggets’ defense to score, which is all he needs with his ridiculous arsenal of attributes.
Paul dominated again when the game mattered, registering 16 of his points in the second half and taking his fourth-quarter shooting efficiency over the series’ three games to 12-of-13.
There is no good answer for how to defend them on ball screens. If there was, we already would have seen it.
Paul credited the coaching staff for the offense’s growth and continuity this year.
“We so prepared man, going into every game,” he said. “And I think the dopest part about it is to see the progression of it. To see the attention to detail early in the season, the regular season, halfway through the season and it’s fun playing the way we play.”
On the night Jokic was awarded the MVP trophy, he played like it, and should have had 40-plus points. His hard counter in Deandre Ayton, though, keeps giving The Joker issues.
Ayton held Jokic to 6-of-18 shooting before the Serbian eventually got going, finishing the game 7-for-11 to finish with 32 points. He also produced 20 rebounds, 10 offensive, along with 10 assists.
Again, however, he didn’t have enough help. Denver’s four other starters combined for 30 points, 11 rebounds and one assist. It was bad timing for the likes of Aaron Gordon (2-for-10) to go missing because Will Barton (14 points) and Monte Morris (21 points) were present and accounted for off the bench.
The Suns knew that type of Jokic performance was coming eventually and Ayton limited it as much as possible for Phoenix to avoid what could have been an all-time effort.
And to go back to the theme of what the Suns have become, that development has had Ayton’s rise interwoven inside it.
Ayton accounted for 10 points and 15 rebounds and the team’s two leaders were glowing about how the big fella has been playing.
“Deandre has been playing his (expletive) off the whole playoffs … We’re proud of him and his growth,” Booker said. “We tell him, ‘Just make it hard. Just make it hard on him. He’s gonna hit some tough shots, that’s what he does. Just consistently wear him down throughout the game.
“He’s so locked into that and I know he has a lot of respect for Jokic and I love when he respects somebody and goes at ’em that much more. That’s the mindset you need to have … Deandre is just taking on the challenge and I’m proud of him.”
Paul was talking about the work the team puts in and it inevitably brought him to discussing Ayton.
“With our team all season long we’ve had growing pains. We’ve had this, that. Me and DA talking about what we see on the screen, hold the screen, set it this way — we’ve all been getting to know each other,” Paul said. “I can’t say enough about DA and what he does for our team. He does all the things that don’t show up on the stat sheet. Those jump shots that I hit toward the end of the game, those don’t happen without him.
“Setting the screen, setting it with pace, the rebounds and all that. He’s so selfless man. We on him a lot, but he’s showing you why he is who he is.”