Jamal Murray, Nuggets strike first with commanding Game 1 rout over Suns

Jamal Murray was helpless the last time Denver met Phoenix in the postseason. Forgive him for soaking in the moment.

As Murray rained in 3-pointers and converted on preposterous finishes at the rim, the Nuggets’ emotional heartbeat beckoned to the home fans to get louder. Even if he got a taste of that feeling again in the first round of the playoffs, Murray wasn’t about to let the moment pass.

Led by Murray, the Nuggets pummeled the Suns, 125-107, in Saturday night’s Game 1 Western Conference semifinal at Ball Arena, sending the first missive in this tantalizing matchup. Murray finished with 34 points and six 3-pointers, quieting those who suggested Phoenix’s superstars might overshadow Denver’s.

According to Nuggets coach Michael Malone, Murray “just continues to add to the legend of playoff Jamal Murray.”

Nikola Jokic assembled a 24-point, 19-rebound performance that had to leave the Suns wondering how they’d contend with his size heading into Monday’s Game 2. The Nuggets outrebounded Phoenix, 49-38, in an early nod to a Suns’ weakness.

“It’s everything,” Malone said of what aspect he was most pleased about.

Though the Suns’ Kevin Durant poured in 29 points, and Devin Booker added 27, Phoenix turned it over 16 times. Denver’s defense lived in the passing lanes and swiped at any opening they saw.

Aaron Gordon added 23 points, nearly equaling Durant’s production throughout most of the night.

Phoenix struck first with two quick buckets in the third quarter, but then Denver’s 3-point parade returned. Murray buried two more, including one that landed him on the floor in front of Denver’s bench. Malone sprinted to pick him up. Tired of banging in the post, Jokic even tossed in a 3-pointer.

When it wasn’t the 3-pointers falling, it was Denver’s patented pick-and-roll that picked apart Phoenix. Murray and Jokic’s action was so effective that Denver’s flashy point guard eventually threw it to the two-time MVP behind his back. Durant kept finding the bucket, but tenacious defense from Bruce Brown and Christian Braun kept Booker from finding the scorching rhythm he did in the first round. Denver carried a comfortable 94-81 lead into the fourth.

One of the primary themes the Nuggets hammered in the days leading up to Saturday was the necessity to make Phoenix’s stars play both ends of the court.

“If you allow any great offensive teams and players to play one end of the floor, they’re going to be really good on offense,” Malone said prior to the game. “We have to move the ball. We have to involve Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, and make them have to defend us. … Stay true to ourselves, move the basketball, set physical screens, and not allow those guys to just hang out on the defensive end of the floor.”

Malone found himself laughing while looking back at the box scores from Denver’s second-round series against Phoenix two seasons ago.

“It was kind of funny to see who we were starting and who we had available,” Malone said, acknowledging their injuries and how short-handed they were. “We couldn’t score.”

That thought never once entered Malone’s mind in a riveting first half that saw Denver flex its depth and firepower. Following a 37-19 second-quarter throttling, the Nuggets entered the break with a 68-51 lead.

Gordon had a team-high 16 points after stepping confidently into two 3-pointers. Michael Porter Jr. had a quick three-basket burst of his own to help Denver’s second unit withstand the non-Jokic and Murray minutes.

Aaron Gordon (50) of the Denver Nuggets grabs a loose ball and pushes in transition agains the Phoenix Suns during the fourth quarter of Denver’s 125-107 win at Ball Arena in Denver on Saturday, April 29, 2023. Denver took a 1-0 series lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal matchup. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

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But once Denver’s star duo returned, the Suns were helpless against Denver’s offense. Jokic poured in 13 points and snatched 14 first-half rebounds, while Murray added 14 points of his own.

When Murray whipped a slick pass to Jokic in transition that yielded a rare slam, Ball Arena erupted. Few, if any, other guard-center combos in the league could’ve executed the sequence.

Though Durant got loose for 19 points in the first half, Denver’s offense was devastating and overwhelming. The Nuggets rained nine first-half 3-pointers to keep the Suns reeling.

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