The Phoenix Suns heard the “M-V-P!” chants from 18,277 fans and watched Nikola Jokic accept his NBA Most Valuable Player award before the start of Game 3 on Friday.
They saw the Denver Nuggets hang with them in the first half and only trail by four.
Then with his team up eight with 1:58 left in the third quarter, Suns coach Monty Williams called a timeout. Denver seemed to have some momentum and looked poised to make final run. Minutes later, the Suns took control of the game, and the series.
Phoenix went on a 14-2 run to build a 20-point lead on the way to a 116-102 win Friday to take a commanding 3-0 series lead in this best-of-7 conference semifinal series.
“We have our eyes on the prize,” All-Star guard Devin Booker said.
Booker led the Suns, winners of six straight playoff games to tie a franchise record, with 28 points while Chris Paul went for 27 points and eight assists to offset a triple-double from Jokic’s monster triple-double.
“It’s very satisfying,” said Paul, who finished fifth in MVP voting. “We knew it was going to be an emotional game for them with Joker being presented the MVP trophy before the game. We just kept talking about trying to withstand their runs. It’s a good win for us.”
Game 4 is Sunday in Denver, where Phoenix will look to fulfill the “Suns in 4” chant they heard from their fans near the end of Game 2 at Phoenix Suns Arena.
No NBA team has come back from a 3-0 series deficit.
“The one thing I don’t want is for us to go out just quietly into that good night,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “I hope we show some real fight and resolve and force this series to go back to Phoenix for a Game 5.”
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The Nuggets made history in last year’s playoffs by rallying back from consecutive 3-1 deficits to reach the Western Conference finals.
They’re now looking to make unprecedented history.
“It was never about trying to win three more games,” Malone said about last year’s run in the Orlando bubble. “It was about winning the next game, winning the first quarter, winning the second quarter, and that’s got to be our mindset. My only hope is that we haven’t let go of the rope because of what history tells us.”
Jokic played like the league’s MVP in churning out a game-high 32 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists.
“That’s insane,” Suns center Deandre Ayton said as he looked at the box score.
However, Jokic shot 13-of-29 as Denver shot just 41.1% from the field overall and just 14-of-41 from 3-point range.
“We stuck to our coverages,” Ayton said. “We played as a unit together. We made sure we emphasized togetherness. We know we’re here in a great city, great arena as well. It was loud, but just having your brother’s back and staying focused was our main thing.”
Jokic got some bench help from Monte Morris (21 points) and Will Barton (14 points), but Denver as a team continues to fall short of containing the balanced and explosive Phoenix offense led by Booker and Paul, who once again took control in the fourth quarter.
Paul posted eight points, three assists and two steals in the fourth, with each play a crushing one to the Nuggets.
- 5:40 — Paul steal on Will Barton (Suns up 15).
- 5:26 — Paul midrange pullup jumper (Suns go up 17).
- 4:58 — Paul jumper (Suns go up 19, timeout Denver).
- 3:33 — Paul steal on Barton (Suns up 15).
- 3:27 — Jae Crowder layup off Paul assist (Suns go up 17).
- 2:43 — Paul 3 (Suns go up 17).
- 1:37 — Crowder 3 off Paul assist (Suns go up 17).
“It’s the same thing we’ve seen from Chris for a long, long time now,” Williams said. “His ability to understand those moments and managing the game.”
Before another Paul takeover in the fourth, Phoenix built its largest lead on a 14-2 run Cameron Payne stared with a 3.
Then Cam Johnson got a huge block on JaMychal Green in the paint and finished the sequence Ayton continued with an offensive rebound with an open 3 to extend Phoenix’s lead to 88-74 with 1:07 left in the third quarter.
Booker added a jumper to close the quarter to keep the lead at 14 points. The Suns opened the fourth with six straight points to close out the run with Dario Saric accounting for four, the last two on a driving layup putting Phoenix up 96-76 with 10:17 left in the game.
“The guys are just making plays for each other,” Williams said. “Playing with a great deal of energy and force.”
“We’re within range, we’re within striking distance,” Malone said. “They close (the third quarter) on an 8-2 run and they started the fourth quarter on a 6-0 run. So that 14-2 run was insurmountable. We can’t afford to allow those runs to happen.”
All five Suns starters once again reached double figures for a third straight game in this series as Crowder scored 14 points and hit 4-of-6 from 3-point range. Mikal Bridges chipped in 11 points and Deandre Ayton posted a double-double with 10 points and 15 rebounds.
Shooting 53.1% from the field as a team, Phoenix connected on 12-of-26 from 3, scored 42 points in the paint, 20 off 14 Denver turnovers and 12 in transition.
Before Phoenix took the court, Williams said Paul and Crowder, the team’s two main veterans, delivered a simple message in the midst of an enthusiastic crowd excited for Jokic and ready to cheer, fully realizing the importance of Game 3 for the Nuggets.
“Those guys were galvanizing the group, even before jump ball, like, ‘Let’s go. We’re here for business,’ ” Williams said. “We didn’t want to disrespect Jokic’s moment. At the same time, we also came here to win a game.”
The Suns did just that and are now a win away from returning to the conference finals for the first time since they last made the playoffs in 2010.
“We’re playing for each other,” Booker said. “When things get tough, we come together even more. So just little things like that we worked on during the regular season and we talked about in the regular season is coming true right now.”
The Suns-Nuggets winner will play the Utah Jazz-Los Angeles Clippers winner in the Western Conference finals. The top-seeded Jazz lead that best-of-7 series 2-0 going into Saturday’s Game 3 in Los Angeles.
Phoenix swept the season series against the Jazz 3-0, but the fourth-seeded Clippers took two of three from the Suns during the regular season.
Follow Duane Rankin on Twitter @DuaneRankin.