The star combos for both the Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets showed up and out. If it were up to Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray, the outcome of Game 4 Sunday might still be undecided. The reason for Phoenix’s 129-124 win and the series now being tied at 2-2? The much maligned Suns’ bench.
Two games ago, that bench produced a total of four points on 2-of-16 shooting. The Suns managed to score only 87 points as the Nuggets took a 2-0 series lead. But a funny thing happened as a result of starting point guard Chris Paul getting injured in that game: coach Monty Williams had no choice but look to his bench for help. And that bench has delivered.
No sub contributed more to Sunday’s win than Landry Shamet, who never even took off his warm-up suit in that Game 2 loss. Shamet had 19 points on 6-of-9 shooting, including 14 in the fourth quarter. His burst of three three-pointers in a 3 1/2-minute stretch midway through the fourth quarter helped open up a 10-point lead.
“It takes a whole group to win this time of year,” said shooting guard Devin Booker. “It’s the highest form of basketball and I’m grateful to be a part of it.”
Booker is elevating that form. His shooting has become so clinical that Steph Curry might have a challenger soon to his throne as the game’s best shooter, but where Booker’s game has truly matured is in his decision-making. The Nuggets elected to trap him and force the ball out of his hands at every opportunity in half-court sets. In the past, Booker would get frustrated and force the issue. On Sunday, he trusted his teammates — more easily done when one of them is Kevin Durant, obviously — and looked for his opportunities by attacking in transition. Result: both he and Durant had 36 points. Booker also had a game-high 12 assists.
Nuggets coach Mike Malone acknowledged the Suns’ firepower and the contributions Williams received from his bench, but he placed the blame for the series being tied on his team’s effort.
“Our defense didn’t arrive in the desert,” he said. “We have to have a much greater urgency at the defensive end.”
The Nuggets also happen to have one of the league’s greatest offensive weapons, big-man variety, in Nikola Jokić, who game by game is erasing the idea that he’s more regular-season wonder than postseason performer. Jokić was nearly as efficient and more unstoppable than Booker, scoring 53 points to go with 11 assists. He also could be seen repeatedly racing out beyond the three-point arc to help pressure Booker.
Overshadowing his performance, though, is sure to be the incident that occurred with 2 1/2 minutes left in the second quarter, when the ball and Suns forward Josh Okogie went flying into the front row seats near the baseline across from the team benches. A fan had the ball tucked under his arm and when Jokić went to grab it the fan resisted, the ball sailing away from both of them. A tussle ensued, in which Jokić put his forearm in the fan’s chest, pushing him back down into his seat.
Jokić was assessed a technical foul for unsportsmanlike conduct, but there could be further repercussions, in part because the fan happened to be the Suns’ new team owner, Mat Ishbia.
That certainly won’t sit well with Malone, who questioned why Jokić received the T. “I think it’s crazy,” he said. “Some fan is holding onto the ball like he wants to be part of the game.” When told that fan was Ishbia, Malone was unimpressed. “I don’t give a sh*t. Give up the ball, man.”
Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.
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