The Phoenix Suns found a way to make this a series with their two best players combining for 86 points, a rarely used reserve coming through in the clutch and without their starting center on the floor in crunch time.
The fourth-seeded Suns will take a win any way they can get it right now.
Their 121-114 Game 3 victory that shouldn’t have been that close after building a 16-point lead in the first half kept them from falling into an insurmountable 3-0 hole in this Western Conference semifinals series.
The Suns certainly needed Devin Booker’s game-high 47 points to match a playoff career-high, Kevin Durant’s 39 points and T.J. Warren’s five points late in game to help close out the No. 1-seed Nuggets.
Phoenix used a 14-0 run that began late in the third and continued into the fourth to build a 99-88 advantage with 9:43 left in the game.
And Jock Landale did more than just score six points and grab nine rebounds. He showed Deandre Ayton — and reminded Suns head coach Monty Williams — that energy and effort can go a long way toward winning a game.
Here are five takeaways as the Suns prevailed without injured Chris Paul, who isn’t expected to play in Sunday’s Game 4 in Phoenix with a left groin strain suffered in the second half of Game 2’s loss.
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Deandre Ayton was watching during crunch time
Oh, the big fella was upset.
When Ayton saw Landale checking into the game with 4:57 left in the fourth and Phoenix up seven, I couldn’t read his lips from where the media sit, but he was barking and sporting a scowl while heading to the bench.
Teammates were coming over to talk to him as Ayton was visibly upset.
Then Landale got called for a foul guarding Nikola Jokic, who scored on the play and hit the ensuing free throw to pull Denver within five with 3:04 remaining in the game.
As Landale sat down, Ayton started talking to him in an energetic way.
Looked like Ayton was giving him advice. Then as the Suns were pulling away, Ayton was clapping from the bench.
Winning is the most important thing. It’s a different scene if the Suns lose, but with a win, Ayton should go home realizing two things.
One, Landale helped save the day. Two, he needs to be better. Period.
Four points on 2-of-6 shooting while Jokic put up an Optimus Prime triple-double of 28 points, 17 rebounds and 17 assists?
This has been a lopsided center matchup that Ayton has usually more than held his own when he’s faced Jokic.
Landale battled Nikola Jokic in ways Ayton didn’t
Now make no mistake. Landale got his share of that 28, 17 and 17 from Jokic, but he played hard and physical and more than anything, he competed.
Ayton didn’t bring it like he can and should. Missing an easy dunk shouldn’t happen, but it does.
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That turnover Ayton committed that turned into a Jokic bucket to make the difference seven in the fourth may have been the final straw for Williams.
The Suns can’t afford for Jokic to continue to have his way without some resistance.
Landale provided some resistance in more ways than one. He ran the floor, something Ayton once did with regularity as a rookie, to open up offense for his teammates.
Everything Landale did Friday, Ayton can do plus he has the talent and skill level to score.
Durant said he expects Ayton to have a big Game 4.
If Ayton’s not delivering one, or at least competing at the level he’s capable of against Jokic, Landale will play serious minutes like he did Game 3.
Devin Booker putting in work, carrying the Suns
If there is one thing Booker has shown in his three-year playoff run, outside of Game 7 against Dallas, is he senses the moment and raises his level.
Booker scored 18 points in the first quarter, shot 20-of-25 for the game and stayed in attack mode despite not getting to the free throw line until the final 6.6 seconds of the game.
Yes, he had words, snarls, smiles and stares with the referees all night, but Booker, in games like this, has shown the ability to channel his frustration into high level production.
That’s not easy, especially for someone like Booker, who expresses his emotions on the court.
The 47 points is one thing.
That’s what he does, but the nine assists to three turnovers, six rebounds, defensive competitiveness in 42 minutes turned his spectacular performance into one that had Durant at a loss for words.
Oh yeah, he played through foul trouble, too, in a game Williams needed him out there to win.
Booker had reason to feel good physically 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, going 12-of-31 in Game 3, but he made a conscious effort to give the Suns what they desperately needed — free throw attempts and makes.
He went 10-of-11 from the line in the second quarter alone and finished the game 14-of-16. Putting those numbers in perspective, Phoenix shot a combined 19-of-22 from the line in Game 1 and 2.
Durant continued to attack to draw contact time and time again. Took some hard falls to the floor, but the Suns needed that from someone Friday.
He took on that challenge knowing it would lead to constant collisions with the Nuggets, who have the physical Aaron Gordon on him to start the game and are hell bent on playing the wiry Durant with physicality.
Listen, this is a guy who has made his name being efficient, but Denver is in many ways speeding him up and playing him so tight, Durant is having to dribble to create space to score.
The Nuggets have a game plan in which they’re looking to wear down Durant over the long haul. Durant showed Friday’s he’s up to the physical challenge.
Contributions from T.J. Warren, Cameron Payne
Warren has been a bucket-getter from the jump.
Guys like him know how to score. So their mind is more on doing that than the moment.
Not to say Warren has come up big every time in the clutch, because he hasn’t, but Warren showed he can come off the bench after playing sparingly in the postseason and come through in the clutch.
Most guys will say they need a rhythm and it’s hard to find one when they haven’t played much.
The same can be said for Cameron Payne.
He went through a stretch of not playing, either, but got the start for Paul and increased the pace for Phoenix.
That’s what he does. Never been a consistent scorer. So the 3-of-9 shooting isn’t a surprise, but his ability to get deflections and steals were winning plays.
He’s not a facilitator like Paul, who is third all-time in NBA history in assists, but the six dimes Payne did have meant that Booker or Durant didn’t have to make a play.
We’ll see if Payne can continue to make those hustle plays, protect the ball — he only had one turnover in Game 3 — and play with pace.
His transition assist to Durant for a dunk to put the Suns up 11 in the fourth quarter are plays that not only get his superstar teammate an easy basket, but get the crowd going.
Have opinion about current state of the Suns? Reach Suns 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 near no-show in Suns’ Game 3 win