Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone kept it 100 about his team’s play following Monday’s Game 1 loss in Phoenix.
“We gave up eight and-1s tonight, I think we had a soft mentality,” Malone said. “You can’t give up eight and-1s in a playoff game. If you’re going to foul somebody, foul them and not let them get the and-1.”
Aaron Gordon took it a step further.
“Soft, that’s a good way to put it,” said the former Arizona star. “Scared, that’s another way to put it. You can choose between those two words. Either soft or scared. That’s what felt like we were playing like.”
Suns forward Torrey Craig believes Denver’s reaction to its 122-105 defeat means his former team will look to bring it for Wednesday’s Game 2 at Phoenix Suns Arena.
“I’m expecting it to be a fight,” Craig said. “They’re going to come out more aggressive, more physical.”
Before looking ahead to Game 2 in this best-of-7 conference semifinals series, let’s look back at Monday’s 17-point win in which the second-seeded Suns went on an overwhelming 42-14 run in the second half to crush the third-seeded Nuggets.
He comes off reserved during Zoom media interviews, but Mikal Bridges is full of energy.
Check out the pregame introductions.
He does a running sprint and enthusiastically jumps in the air with teammates.
Suns General Manager James Jones said Bridges is funny and can talk that talk.
“He’s a Philly guy,” Jones said back in March. “Philly guys, they have a good talk game. They talk with the best of them.”
Bridges can also walk that walk as he scored a career playoff-high 23 points, with 13 coming in the third on 5-of-5 shooting.
Eleven of those 13 came during that monstrous run.
“Mikal man, Mikal is something else,” Suns big Deandre Ayton said.
Bridges also displayed that “joy” Williams says is a sign he’s playing well.
The third-year wing smiled, pumped his fist and celebrated with his teammates much to the delight of the crowd.
“The energy was electric and we’re just feeding off it,” Bridges said. “It’s going to make you get hyped.”
That’s how Bridges is when he’s not sitting in front of a camera for Zoom interviews.
The Nuggets are playoff tested.
These Suns aren’t to the extent Denver is.
The Nuggets made history last year in rallying from consecutive 3-1 deficits in the same postseason in the Orlando bubble.
They took four of the last five in their last series against Portland, which they won in six.
The Suns hadn’t made the playoffs since 2010.
They did take down the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, have veterans Chris Paul and Jae Crowder, but as a whole, aren’t playoff seasoned.
“We only have the experience that we have this year,” Suns coach Monty Williams said.
What they do have is homecourt advantage.
“This crowd is crazy,” Paul said. “It’s crazy to have all the fans in there. The energy, it’s nothing like it. I told the guys this is why we fought so hard in the regular season to get homecourt advantage and I think we truly have that with our fan base.”
Got 16,000-plus in the arena Monday. The plus side of that number is debatable.
“I’m seeing less and less seats,” Ayton said. “I don’t even think I saw seats, available seats. That is a great thing. This was the loudest game, to be honest, that I’ve ever played in.”
The Suns also have a healthier Paul leading them through the highs and lows of the playoffs.
“CP has been through a lot and he always talks to us about one game at a time,” Bridges said. “Can’t win a couple of games and think it’s over. A lot of talented teams and you’ve got to win four.”
Paul looked more like the NBA MVP candidate in Monday’s win with 21 points, 11 assists to just one turnover and six rebounds in 36 minutes.
Finishing fifth in the MVP voting announced Tuesday, Paul took over in the fourth quarter Monday night with a personal 10-0 run.
“It’s in his hands,” Ayton said. “He got it. He’s been in situations like this. He’s handling his business.”
This all came after it appeared he dinged his injured right shoulder early in Game 1.
“It definitely loosens up, but one thing about it is you don’t get no practice time,” Paul said. “The only chance you get to see how it is (doing) is in a game.”
Paul scored 14 points in the fourth and assisted on six more points, meaning he had a say in 20 of Phoenix’s 34 points in the quarter.
“I’m glad to be back helping the team,” Paul said.
The Suns are glad Paul is back healthier to help them, too.
Ayton continued to give Jokic trouble Monday night.
Posting a double-double of 20 points and 10 rebounds, Ayton not only made an offensive impact, but played a part in Jokic needing 23 shots from the field to score 22 points.
“Playing our coverages,” Ayton said. “Studying team tendencies and what they like and we just stuck to the game plan.”
For Game 2, Ayton will be playing against more than just the guy he says is the ‘modern center.”
He’ll be facing the league MVP.
Jokic was named Tuesday this season’s NBA Most Valuable Player as he beat out Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid and Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry.
So Ayton’s matchup against Jokic in this series is even more meaningful now that Jokic is the league MVP.
“I love playing against him,” Ayton said.
If Ayton keeps playing well against Jokic, and Phoenix keeps beating the Nuggets, the Suns big will truly show he’s the near future at this position.
Devin Booker scored 21 points in Game 1, but had five turnovers that all came in the first half Monday.
He adjusted in the second half, but Denver took the smaller Austin Rivers off him and put the bigger Aaron Gordon on him.
Booker still scored 10 on 4-of-5 shooting in the second half as he didn’t have to be super aggressive with Bridges and Paul taking over.
If he has to go into that mode in Game 2, can he do it with Gordon guarding him?
Then there’s Michael Porter Jr., who “tweaked” his back in Game 1 according to Malone, who said after Tuesday’s practice the rising Nuggets star should be ready for Game 2.
Porter Jr. scored 15 points, but only three came in the second half.
How will Porter look early Wednesday night as he’s listed as questionable with low back tightness on Denver’s ‘player status’ from its game notes.
Finally, Phoenix scored 13 fast-break points and 18 off 12 Denver turnovers Monday.
“One time I took off, I was going full speed and looked to my right and DA is passing me,” Booker said. “I’m running fast as I can. That opens up a lot of opportunities for all for us.”
Can Suns use their speed and athleticism to their advantage again?
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