PHOENIX - The struggles for the Denver Nuggets in a 123-98 loss in Game 2 on Wednesday at Phoenix Suns Arena started with shooting and spread seemingly everywhere else.
“(One team) wanted to be here, played with a purpose and urgency, and one team did not want to be here and played with no urgency,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said after his team fell into a 2-0 hole in the second-round playoff series. “And that’s why we got our (butt) kicked.”
Michael Porter Jr., who led the Nuggets with a 44.5% mark from 3 in the regular season and entered the day questionable with a back injury, missed all six of his first-half 3-pointers.
“His back is fine,” Malone said.
Facu Campazzo went 1 of 5 from deep in the first half, and Phoenix never trailed after Nikola Jokic opened the scoring in the first 15 seconds.
“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,” Malone said. “This was just an embarrassing performance all around, from top to bottom.”
Jokic led all scorers with 24 points and added 13 rebounds and six assists. Porter added 11 points, while Will Barton III, who returned after nearly two months out with injury added 10 points, three rebounds and shot block.
“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 said. “This was an embarrassing performance for myself all the way through the last player.”
Chris Paul toyed with Denver’s defense to the tune of 26 points and 15 assists without a turnover.
“We just have to make it more uncomfortable for him (and) try to force him to do things he doesn’t want to do, make it tougher for him and know his tendencies,” Barton said. “We’ve got to do that for all their guys. Right now, I feel like they’re getting to their spots and getting to the things that they’re comfortable doing and want to do.”
Devin Booker led the Suns with 18 points, while Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton added 16 and 15, respectively. Ayton and Booker grabbed 10 rebounds to finish with double-doubles.
“They were the much, much better team,” Jokic said. “They were aggressive. They were making shots. They were finding open looks. They had a couple of big offensive rebounds.”
Despite a 1 for 13 mark from 3-point range in the first quarter, the Nuggets trailed by just four to start the second. The Nuggets would shoot a bit better from 3 in the second quarter, going 3 for 9, but six turnovers and the Suns making all nine free throws sent Denver back to the locker room down 52-42. The Nuggets’ 4 for 22 (18.2%) mark from 3 in the first half goes down as their second-worst showing in a half over the last 25 years, per ESPN Stats & Info.
“You can’t rely on just offense making 3s,” Barton said. “We’ve got to get after guys, make them uncomfortable and make it that type of game, especially when we’re not hitting our shots.”
The Suns would stretch the lead to 22 points in the third quarter, took a 19-point advantage to the fourth and led by as many as 31 before Malone went to his third unit and effectively ceded the game.
“I won’t get into it, but some things were definitely said,” Barton said of the locker room. “Some things that needed to be said, but all that’s irrelevant. We got to go on the court Game 3 and play like we know how we need to play to win.”
Game 3, when Jokic is expected to be awarded his Most Valuable Player trophy, is Friday at Denver’s Ball Arena.
“There’s a reason their crowd is yelling ‘Suns in four,’” Malone said.
“If we play like this back in Denver, this is going to be a really quick series.”