The Phoenix Suns found a way to turn this into a series where their top two players will have 86 points, a rarely used reserve that comes through in the clutch and without their starting center being floored in crunch time.
The fourth-place Suns will win any way they can.
Their 121-114 victory in Game 3, which shouldn’t have been so close after building a 16-point lead in the first half, kept them from going into an impassable 3-0 hole in this Western Conference Semifinals series fell.
The Suns certainly needed Devin Booker’s game-high 47 points to match a playoff career-high, Kevin Durant’s 39 points and TJ Warren’s five points late in the game to close out the No. 1 seed nuggets.
Phoenix capitalized on a 14-0 run that started late in the third and continued in the fourth to build a 99-88 advantage, with 9:43 remaining in the game.
And Jock Landale has scored more than six points and 9 rebounds. He showed Deandre Ayton – and reminded Suns head coach Monty Williams – that energy and effort can go a long way in winning a game.
Here are five takeaways as the Suns prevailed without the injured Chris Paul, who is unlikely to play Sunday’s Game 4 in Phoenix with a left groin strain he sustained in the second half of the Game 2 loss.
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Deandre Ayton watched during crunch time
Oh the big guy was upset.
When Ayton saw Landale check into the game with 4:57 in the fourth and Phoenix check in before seven, I couldn’t read his lips from where the media sits, but he barked and wore a scowl as he walked to the bench.
Teammates came over to speak to him as Ayton was visibly upset.
Then Landale was called out for a foul on Nikola Jokic, who scored on play and hit the subsequent free throw to draw Denver 3:04 in the game within five minutes.
Time out sun.
As Landale sat down, Ayton began talking vigorously to him.
It looked like Ayton was going to give him some advice. Then, as the Suns withdrew, Ayton smacked off the bench.
Winning is the most important thing. It’s a different scene when the Suns lose, but with a win, Ayton should go home realizing two things.
First, Landale helped save the day. Second, he needs to get better. Period.
A career playoff low of four points on 2-of-6 shooting while Jokic fielded an Optimus Prime triple-double with 30 points, 17 rebounds and 17 assists?
This was a one-sided center matchup that Ayton has usually maintained more than well when facing Jokic.
Landale fought Nikola Jokic in a way that Ayton didn’t
Now make no mistake. Landale got his share of those 30, 17 and 17 from Jokic but he played hard and physical and more than anything he competed.
Ayton hasn’t made it the way he can and should. Missing a slight finish on the rim shouldn’t happen, but it does.
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That turnover, which Ayton committed and turned into a Jokic bucket to make the difference of seven in the fourth, may have been the last straw for Williams.
The Suns can’t afford to let Jokic continue to have his way without resistance.
Landale resisted on several counts. He ran across the floor, which Ayton once did regularly as a rookie, to open up his teammates’ attack.
Anything Landale did on Friday, Ayton can do and he has the talent and skills to score.
Durant said he expects Ayton to have a big Game 4.
If Ayton doesn’t deliver, or at least compete against Jokic at the level he’s capable of, Landale will play serious minutes like he did in Game 3.
Devin Booker at work wearing the Suns
If there’s one thing Booker has shown in his three-year playoff run outside of Game 7 against Dallas is that he’s sensing the moment and raising his level.
Booker scored 18 points in the first quarter, shooting 20 of 25 for the game and remaining in attack mode despite failing to hit the free throw line until the game’s final 6.6 seconds.
Yes, he had words, growls, smiles and stares with the umpires all night, but Booker has shown in games like this he can channel his frustration into high-profile production.
It’s not easy, especially for someone like Booker who expresses his feelings on the pitch.
The 47 points are one thing.
He does, but the nine assists to three turnovers, six rebounds and defensive competitiveness in 42 minutes made his spectacular performance one that Durant failed to find words.
Oh yes, he played through bad difficulties too, in a game Williams needed to win.
Booker had reason to feel physically good even after putting the Suns on his back.
Kevin Durant accepted the free throw challenge
Durant is 22-of-58 in his last two games and 12-of-31 in Game 3, but he made a conscious effort to give the Suns what they desperately needed — free throw attempts and throws.
He went off the line with 10 of 11 in the second quarter alone and finished the game on 14 of 16. To put those numbers in perspective, Phoenix shot 19 of 22 from the line in Game 1 and 2 combined.
Durant kept attacking to make contact. Took some tough falls to the ground but the Suns needed that from someone on Friday.
He accepted this challenge because he knew it would lead to constant clashes with the Nuggets, who have the physical Aaron Gordon with them to start the game and who are desperate to play the wiry Durant with physicality .
Listen, this is a guy who’s made a name for himself as being efficient, but Denver speeds him up in a lot of ways and plays him so tight Durant has to dribble to make room for a goal.
The Nuggets have a game plan in which they try to wear Durant down in the long run. Durant showed on Friday that he’s up to the physical challenge.
Contributions by TJ Warren, Cameron Payne
Warren was a bucket getter from the jump.
Guys like him know how to score. So they focus more on doing that than on the moment.
Not to say Warren has come out big in the clutch every time because he hasn’t, but Warren has shown he can come off the bench after playing sparingly in the postseason and come through in the clutch can.
Most guys will say they need a rhythm and it’s hard to find one if they haven’t played a lot.
The same goes for Cameron Payne.
He also didn’t play for a while but got the start for Paul and upped the tempo for Phoenix.
He does. Has never been a consistent goalscorer. So the 3-of-9 shooting comes as no surprise, but his ability to pull off deflections and steals were winners.
He’s not an intermediary like Paul, who is third all-time in assists in NBA history, but the six cents Payne had meant Booker or Durant didn’t have to make a game.
We’ll see if Payne can keep making those frantic plays, protect the ball – he only had one turnover in Game 3 – and play with pace.
His transitional assist for Durant for a dunk to take the Suns to 11 in the fourth quarter are plays that not only easily basket his Superstar teammate but also get the crowd going.
Do you have an opinion on the current state of the suns? You can reach Sun insider Duane Rankin at [email protected] or contact him at 480-787-1240. Follow him on Twitter at @DuaneRankin.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Booker, Durant deliver but Ayton almost misses Suns’ Game 3 win