PHOENIX — Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, and the Phoenix Suns are back.
The Suns evened their Western Conference semifinal series against the Denver Nuggets with their 129-124 win in Game 4 in front of the 79th consecutive sellout at Footprint Center with 17,071 fans.
Phoenix is now in a position to take a series lead in Game 5, which will be Tuesday at 7 p.m.
The Suns looked like a weaker team in the first two games. Denver got plenty of contributions outside of stars Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic, which made the Suns’ bench a question mark when the series shifted to Phoenix.
The Suns changed the narrative this weekend. Phoenix got great play out of backup point guard Cameron Payne, who stepped up well in place of Chris Paul, who is out with a left groin strain. Backup wings Terrence Ross and T.J. Warren offered some shot-making and center Jock Landale had physical play that disrupted the Nuggets’ interior attack.
Also, Landry Shamet deserves some love. He had been criticized by Suns fans for his performance this postseason but had a very effective 19-point game in Game 4, when he made 5-of-8 3-point attempts.
Here are five reasons why the Suns were able to dig out of an 0-2 hole and beat the Nuggets.
1. Insane efforts from Devin Booker, Kevin Durant
Devin Booker has had to carry the Suns out of franchise poverty and into an era that has seen their third NBA Finals appearance and a 64-win season. Now, championship expectations are the norm.
Booker has only improved as his team has. He had 36 points Sunday on 14-of-18 shooting and shot a combined 34-of-43 in Games 3 and 4.
ClutchPoints wrote in four predictions for Game 4 that Booker would wow the crowd, which came true. It’s safe to say Booker is playing the best he has in his career, which may warrant status as the best player on the planet.
Durant has been right there with him. The new Sun had not played an efficient game this postseason, but he did Sunday with 36 points on 11-of-19 shooting with 11 rebounds and six assists.
Booker and Durant have set all kinds of historic marks. Here are some below.
Kevin Durant and Devin Booker are the 1st duo in NBA postseason history to each record 35 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists in consecutive playoff games. pic.twitter.com/MY5bVmWKcR
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 8, 2023
Most PPG in the second round this playoffs:
36.5 — Nikola Jokic
36.3 — Devin Booker
32.0 — Kevin Durant
Nobody else is averaging more than 30. pic.twitter.com/zQDa30BJcR
— StatMuse (@statmuse) May 8, 2023
Devin Booker and Kevin Durant combined to score 158 points in the Suns’ two wins in Phoenix.
Per @ESPNStatsInfo, only one duo in NBA history scored more during span of two playoff games: Michael Jordan and Orlando Woolridge (161) in 1986.
— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) May 8, 2023
The Suns are going to ride their top two guys. They’ve met the call so far.
2. Improved bench play
Phoenix’s bench has received fair criticism this postseason. It failed to contribute, and coach Monty Williams played Shamet even though he struggled.
Williams has been questioned for sticking with his players rather than changing things when they look bad. It paid off Sunday, as Shamet — who was a team-worst minus-10 in Game 3 — had five 3-pointers, including four in the fourth quarter.
Without Paul, the Suns also employed Ross and Warren, who failed to receive significant minutes even though they are proven scorers. Warren played 26 minutes in Game 3 and scored two huge shots when he closed the game. Ross hit a 3-pointer in Game 3 and had two big ones in Game 4, including one that gave the Suns a 92-90 lead with 1:26 left in the third quarter.
The Suns need their bench to produce to beat the Nuggets at Ball Arena. Ross, Warren and Landale, who had nine rebounds in Game 3 and then five in Game 4, will need to provide the same energy they did in these two home games.
3. Matching and beating the Nuggets’ runs
Home games typically give a team momentum. But against the Nuggets, who three years ago became the first team in NBA history to overcome two 3-1 deficits in the same postseason, the Suns answered runs consistently.
In Game 3, the Suns used a 30-15 run to take a 15-point halftime lead. Denver took the advantage in the third quarter but Phoenix went on a 9-0 run to start the fourth that created separation.
The Suns closed the first quarter Sunday with a 15-6 run after Denver led 28-21 with 3:10 left. Phoenix also had a 9-2 run to end the third quarter and a 16-10 run over a 5:13 span in the fourth that built its lead to 106-96 with 4:56 left.
The Suns will have to do the same in Denver. They will have to weather runs that they were unable to match in Games 1 and 2. Thankfully for them, they should have more confidence in their depth.
4. Coaching from Monty Williams
Williams has been criticized by outside media for his performance in his series. It took him a while to put Ross and Warren in the rotation when they seemed to be fixes for scoring issues. Give Williams credit for how he handled things in Games 3 and 4.
The Suns could have easily stuck with their rotation they played earlier in this postseason. Phoenix had struggled to find a rhythm, and many blamed Williams.
But the Suns’ coach said his objective was to find something to win at all costs. In Game 3, he played a lineup he said he had not put on the floor before with Shamet, Booker, Warren, Durant and Landale. They still won the game.
Phoenix seemed to find some consistency in Game 4, and its bench exploded for 40 points against the Nuggets’ 11.
The Suns’ issues were definitely more concealed than before. If they can find a rotation to win in Game 5, that will be a great sign for Williams from an adjustment standpoint.
5. Looking like themselves
The Suns had the best regular-season mark in the last two-and-a-half years since the 2020 NBA bubble, when they went 8-0 and started their current stretch of success.
Phoenix still has a lot it wants to prove. The Suns have yet to win an NBA championship with this current regime, and Durant may be the missing piece they need to get over the hump.
The Suns have issues, yes. But they have two of the best players in the world who are playing at an elite level. They found a way to push the pace and press the Nuggets, who shouldered them into a corner in the first two games of this series.
Phoenix has to win Game 5 in order to hold a series advantage for the first time. If it does, it would be a dramatic turnaround after several sources counted it out after the first two games.
The Suns can still reach the Western Conference Finals. They will have a Game 6 in Phoenix no matter the result of Tuesday’s Game 5.
It is everything the team could have asked for. Oh, and they still do not have Chris Paul.
Game 5 is Tuesday in Denver.
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