PHOENIX — While boos filled the air at halftime on Thursday at the Footprint Center, Nikola Jokic made his way back to the Denver Nuggets’ locker room.
Jokic sauntered down the back hall in his usual casual body language, not giving a clue that the Nuggets were 30 points clear and well on their way back to the Western Conference Finals.
As they had all season, the Nuggets followed the two-time MVP’s lead with a businesslike expression. The Nuggets are on a mission to reach the NBA Finals, and they’re just one step away from their goal after beating the Suns 125-100 in Game 6 and eliminating Phoenix 4-2.
The Nuggets return 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 high. With his third triple-double in four games, he completed a phenomenal streak in which he had 32 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds while making 13 of 18 shots. The Suns simply had no answer for Jokic, who averaged 30 points in the triple-double in the second round.
Jokic and the Nuggets have been focused all season on winning the franchise’s first NBA title. They ended up in the West’s top flight with 53 wins and Jokic was once again one of the top contenders in the MVP race.
But even the nuggets have flown a bit under the radar. After trading for Kevin Durant, the Suns became a popular pick to get out of the Western Conference playoffs and were even picked as favorites in their series against the Nuggets despite being in bottom fourth place.
And as they wait for the Lakers-Warriors series winner, the Nuggets know they’ll face a team with a higher profile nationally, either the LeBron James-led Lakers or the Steph Curry-led defending champion Warriors.
Either way, the Nuggets will be hoping for a little revenge. Most recently, they lost 4-1 to the Lakers in the 2020 Western Conference Finals. And the Warriors eliminated the Nuggets, who didn’t have injured Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., in five games in the first round last postseason.
It’s been a long road back to the Conference Finals for Murray. He broke through the bubble postseason, averaging 26.5 points, 6.6 assists and a 50.5% shot average, including 45.3% from behind the arch.
Murray tore his left cruciate ligament the following season, on April 12, 2021, missing two consecutive postseasons. Despite struggling with his 3-point shot for much of the game against the Suns, Murray averaged 25.9 points, 6.7 assists and 5.3 rebounds early in the sixth game against Phoenix this postseason.
But earlier on Thursday, Murray was included on the injury report with a non-COVID-19 illness. The point guard was unable to participate in the morning shootout, which the Nuggets called off because some members of the team were also feeling down. However, Murray started Game 6 and had 26 points, 4 assists and 4 rebounds.
The Suns failed to contain Murray’s backcourt teammate Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Caldwell-Pope was brought in to bring championship experience and defense from his time with the Lakers. He started the game with flying colors and finished the game with 21 points and 7-for-11 shooting. Thanks to Caldwell-Pope’s aggressive play and Jokic’s consistent lead, the Nuggets built an 81-51 lead at halftime.
The Suns were booed off the field as they retired to their dressing room at the break with a 30-down score, a repeat of the soundtrack they heard at halftime in Game 7 of last year’s second round against the Dallas Mavericks. This is only the fourth time in NBA history that a team facing elimination has gone 30 or more points down at halftime, and the Suns have been part of that wrong side twice, according to an investigation by ESPN Stats & Information history.
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That’s certainly something Suns coach Monty Williams couldn’t have imagined when Phoenix traded for Durant before the trade deadline was up.
But injuries hurt Phoenix. Chris Paul suffered a groin injury in Game 2 and did not play the rest of the series. And the Suns were without center Deandre Ayton (ribs) in the Suns home final.
Devin Booker and Durant, both of whom were averaging over 42 minutes per game early in game six this postseason, finally seemed to run out of energy as they shot off the field 12-32 together. Booker had just 12 points after entering the game with an average of 34.6 points in the series.
The crushing defense and will of the Nuggets also played a big part in this. In their first two postseason runs with this core of Jokic and Murray in 2019 and 2020, the Nuggets played a seventh game in four playoff series. This postseason, Denver’s fifth straight season, the Nuggets were better at ending the series earlier. They are 2-1 after having a chance to knock out their opponent and have reached the conference finals in 11 games in total.
Malone said he didn’t have to explain to his team what was at stake in the pre-debrief. He reiterated what Jokic said after Game 5 that the Nuggets didn’t want to risk that series going into a Game 7 where anything can happen.
“We have a veteran group,” Malone said ahead of Game 6. “We have guys that have been around a couple of times and I think our guys understand that. For me, it’s the attitude that matters, not the fact leaving that, oh, we can go home and win game 7. If that’s your approach, you’ll be beaten tonight.
“Our approach should be that we’re down and that we absolutely have to win. And if that’s your mentality, you’re going to give yourself a much better chance than if you have that ace in your pocket.” [of]Well, we enjoy the comfort of the Ball Arena’s friendly atmosphere. I don’t want to hear that. Were here. We have a job to do. Get the work done tonight.