Midway through the second quarter of the first game between the Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets, Bruce Brown drove to the hoop while DeAndre Ayton was defending him. The shot missed and Ayton found himself on the sidelines.
Instead of hustling back to get the rebound, he watched Nikola Jokic try to score off the miss. Jokic missed the first tip-in. Ayton still didn’t move from the sidelines. Jokic tried to tip it in a second time. Ayton still hasn’t moved from the same spot. Jokic tapped the ball to himself to get a better look at the basket, and finally Ayton realized that it was a live play and joined the fray.
That sequence perfectly captures the effort that the Suns have been giving in the playoffs so far.
This is a problem that didn’t just pop up in the second round. This became a glaring issue as early as Phoenix’s first round battle with the LA Clippers. In the very first game of the series, the Suns allowed the Clippers – who were playing without Paul George – to score 115 points in the upset loss. Things didn’t get better after that. Kawhi Leonard missed the final 3 games of the series, and even without their two best players, LA still managed to average 120 points against a healthy Suns team.
All in all the Suns gave up 118 points per 100 possessions in the first round. Five points more than their regular season number. Their playoff defensive rating would have them ranked as the fifth worst defense in the regular season.
After several scares against the Clippers, the Suns would have learned their lesson right?
Well, as proven by the now-viral clip of Ayton watching Jokic from the sidelines, Phoenix still hasn’t tightened up their defense.
The Nuggets opened their semis rematch against the Suns with a 125-point showing, winning Game 1 easily by 18 points. The Suns allowed the Nuggets to score a whopping 128.5 points per 100 possessions in that game. Denver scored on 47.5 percent of their shots while hitting 16 triples at a 43.2 percent clip.
Six Denver players scored in double-figures led by Jamal Murray who scored 34 points and nailed six 3-pointers. Jokic didn’t have the best game, scoring 24 points at only a 42 percent rate. But he did grab 19 rebounds, with eight coming on the offensive end.
Oh, that Ayton moment happened in the middle of a Nuggets run in the second period that blew the game wide open. Denver outscored Phoenix 37-19 in that quarter.
After getting burned defensively in the first six games of the playoffs, the Suns came out with a different kind of defensive intensity in Game 2 against the Nuggets. From the get-go, they treated Murray like he was Steph Curry. Phoenix put a bigger, more physical defender on him and it took away Murray’s flow from Game 1. He made only one of his first 10 attempts in the first three quarters, way off from his performance in the first game.
The Suns also tried to muddle up everything the Nuggets did offensively. The actions that the Nuggets were running were a few feet away because the Suns were preventing them from getting to their usual spots on the floor. Because of that, the Nuggets managed to score only 40 points in the first half. That half was the best defensive performance of the Suns in the entire playoffs.
Unfortunately, they couldn’t keep it up. Phoenix’s physicality and effort on defense waned in the second half. The Suns allowed the Nuggets to have their way in the third period, where Denver scored 30 points. That opened the floodgates and set up a game-changing run in the fourth.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope hit a big 3 to open up an eight-point lead late in the fourth. That 9-2 run was ended by a step-back by Murray and midrange J by Jokic to give the Nuggets a double-digit lead with less than two minutes left.
Jokic destroyed the Suns in the second half of Game 2. He scored 26 of his 39 points in the second half, including 18 in the third quarter alone. Murray managed to bounce back with six points and five assists in the second half. Caldwell-Pope had 11 points in the second half and hit all his three shots from beyond the arc.
The Suns proved – at least for a half – that they can play elite, playoff-level defense. Now they’ll need to do the same for four full games. They can’t play half-effort basketball on defense anymore. They’re now halfway from being swept by the Nuggets.