Om YoungmisukESPN staff writer5 minutes of reading
PHOENIX — Booze filled the air at halftime Thursday at the Footsteps Center, Nikola Jokic headed back to the Denver Nuggets locker room.
Not betraying the fact that the Nuggets were up by 30 and well on their way to a return to the Western Conference Finals, Zachic stumbled into the back hallway with his usual nonchalant body language.
As they have been all season, the Nuckets followed the two-time MVP’s lead with an all-business look on their faces. The Nuggets are on a mission to reach the NBA Finals, and they’re one step away after the Suns were swept 125-100 in Game 6 by Phoenix, 4-2.
The Nuggets are returning to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since losing the conference championship to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2020 Orlando bubble.
Denver will host either the Golden State Warriors or the Los Angeles Lakers next Tuesday.
Jokic returns to the conference finals on an absolute tear. He completed an impressive streak with his third triple-double in four games, scoring 32 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds while making 13 of 18 shots. The Suns had no answer for Jokic, who averaged a 30-point triple-double in the second round.
Jokic and the Nuggets have been focused all season on winning the franchise’s first NBA title. They won 53 games and finished with the top seed in the West, and Jokic was once again the leading candidate in the MVP race.
But the Nuggets have also flown a bit under the radar. After trading for Kevin Durant, the Suns became a popular pick to exit the Western Conference playoffs and were favored to enter the series against the Nuggets despite a lowly fourth seed.
Even as they await the winner of the Lakers-Warriors series, the Nuggets know they’ll be facing a team with a bigger national profile in the LeBron James-led Lakers or the Steph Curry-led defending champion Warriors.
Either way, the Nuggets will get some payback. They lost to the Lakers 4–1 in the 2020 Western Conference Finals. The Warriors swept the Nuggets in the first round last postseason, without injured Jamaal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. in five games.
For Murray, it’s been a long journey to the conference finals. He had a breakout season on the bubble, averaging 26.5 points, 6.6 assists and 50.5% shooting, including 45.3% from behind the arc.
Murray tore his left ACL the following season on April 12, 2021, and missed two consecutive postseasons. Struggling to stretch his 3-point shot against the Suns, Murray entered the postseason in Game 6 against Phoenix and averaged 25.9 points, 6.7 assists and 5.3 rebounds.
But on Thursday, Murray was placed on the injury report with a non-Covid-19 illness. The point guard was unable to participate in the morning shootaround, which cut the Nuggets short as the rest of the team felt under the weather. Murray started Game 6, but had 26 points, 4 assists and 4 rebounds.
The Suns couldn’t contain Murray’s backcourt mate Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Brought in to provide championship experience and defense from his Lakers days, Caldwell-Pope started the game on fire and finished with 21 points and 7-for-11 shooting. Behind Caldwell-Pope’s aggressive play and Jokic’s steady direction, the Nuggets led 81-51 at the half.
A replay of the tape they heard at halftime of Game 7 of last year’s second round against the Dallas Mavericks led the Suns off the court as they retreated to their locker room at 30 p.m. It was the fourth time in NBA history that a team trailed by 30 or more at the half, and the Suns were part of the wrong side of history, according to research by ESPN Stats and Information.
Suns coach Monty Williams certainly couldn’t have envisioned this when Phoenix traded for Durant before the trade deadline.
But injuries hurt Phoenix. Chris Paul suffered a groin injury in Game 2 and missed the remainder of the series. And the Suns were without center Deandre Ayton (ribs) in what will be their home finale.
Devin Booker and Durant are both averaging more than 42 minutes per game and entering Game 6 this season, they may have finally run out of gas as they shot 12-for-32 from the field. After averaging 34.6 points in the series, Booker was held to just 12 points.
The Nuggets’ stifling defense and that will play a big role as well. In their first two postseason runs with this core of Jokic and Murray in 2019 and 2020, the Nuggets went to the seventh of four playoff series. The Nuggets were good at ending Denver’s fifth straight streak earlier this postseason. They went 2-1 with a chance to eliminate the opposition and advanced to the conference finals in 11 games overall.
Malone said his team didn’t need to hammer home what was at stake in his pregame meeting with the players. He echoed what Jokic said after Game 5, saying the Nuggets didn’t want to risk the series going to Game 7, where anything could happen.
“We have an experienced group,” Malone said before Game 6. “We have guys that have been around the block a few times and I think our guys understand, and for me it really comes down to the mindset of not relying on, oh, we can go home and win Game 7. If that’s your attitude, you’re going to win tonight.
“Our attitude is we’re down, it’s a must-win. If that’s your mindset, you’re going to give yourself more of an opportunity than that ace in the pocket. [of], well, the friendly confines of Ball Arena comfort us. I don’t want to hear it. was here. We have a job. Do the work tonight.”