PHOENIX – In the opening minutes of Monday night’s game, Chris Paul bumped onto his ailing right shoulder and smiled for a second. His actions were a bit fluke, his shots didn’t look quite right.
Then – seemingly out of nowhere – “Point God” was back.
One mid-range jumper dropped and then another. A short floater found the net as the crowd roared and then a 3-pointer smashed into the house. The 11-time All-Star looked like his usual self, the rest of the Suns followed suit and the Phoenix rallied to a 122–105 victory over the Denver Nuggets in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals.
“It was fun to get out there and get involved,” Paul said. “That last series – it was tough – but I’m happy to help the team.”
Paul and his right shoulder finished with 21 points and 11 assists, while Michal Bridges added the team’s high 23 points in 8 of 12 shots, including 4 of 8 from the back of the arc.
The Sons started behind for most of the first half and 70-60 in the third quarter, but rallied to take the lead late in the third. Devin Booker scored a 3-pointer and Bridges added a driving layup for a 79-72 advantage.
He took a lead of 88-79 by moving to fourth place. Paul – who played with a sick shooting shoulder during the first-round matchup against the Lakers – made back-to-back mid-range jumps and left the Suns 94-79 with 10:25.
“We felt that energy,” Booker said. “We felt the passion. They just made plays.”
The selling crowd of 16,319 rejoiced, who eagerly watched the point guard’s every move.
“This crowd is crazy,” said Paul. “Nothing like that. That’s why we worked hard during the regular season to take advantage of the home court.
Paul’s bucket at 34-9 was the final exclamation point that helped Phoenix take control. Deandre Ayton finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds while Booker added 21 points.
It was surprising that the game didn’t come until the last minute. The three regular-season meetings were very close: one was decided by three points in regulation, the other was decided in overtime and the other was doubled overtime.
Game 2 is in Phoenix on Wednesday.
Denver coach Michael Malone said, “We did some good things but obviously we couldn’t sustain it for 48 minutes.” “We all have to collectively get better, a lot more physical, a lot more disciplined if we want to win in Game 2.
Nikola Jokic led the Nuggets with 22 points but cooled down while the Suns scored their second half. Aaron Gordon added 18 points while Michael Porter Jr added 15 points.
The first quarter saw a Big Man matchup between Jokic and Ayton as both teams fought a 28-all tie. Ayton threw a forceful dunk at Porter, while Jokic used his strength and position to make five of six shots.
Denver held a 58-57 lead at halftime. Jokic had 15 points and six rebounds before the break, while Booker and Ayton scored 11-11 for the Sons.
cold shoulder gets hot
All eyes were on Paul in the opening minutes, especially after his ailing right shoulder was inadvertently hit by Denver point guard Facundo Campazzo.
He looked uncomfortable for a moment but gradually recovered. The 36-year-old made a 3-pointer and then a turnaround jumper in the second quarter.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Paul became the third player, age 36 or older, to have at least 20 points and 10 assists in a playoff game. Steve Nash and John Stockton were the others.
Paul averaged only 9.2 points per game against the Lakers in the first round, partly due to a shoulder injury he suffered in the first half of Game 1.
any sour grapes
Sons coach Monty Williams finished second in the NBA Coach of the Year, just behind Tom Thibodeau of the New York Knicks.
This was the closest turnout since this version of voting was introduced 19 years ago. Thibodeau got 43 votes in first place and finished with a total of 351 points, while Monty Williams of Phoenix actually got more votes in first place – he got 45 – but finished with 340 points.
Williams didn’t bother to finish second, especially since the winner was Thibodeau. The two worked together when he was the assistant coach of USA Basketball.
“It’s great to see someone I’ve worked with win an award like this,” Williams said.
Flavortown in Phoenix
Celebrity chef Guy Fieri was among the fans sitting in front of the courtroom at Phoenix Sans Arena. The band Jimmy Eat World, which was formed in Mesa, Arizona in the 1990s and had a string of hits in the 2000s, performed at halftime.
Well, he played one of his biggest songs, “The Middle.”
Nuggets: Guards Jamal Murray (left ACL surgery), Will Barton (right hamstring strain) and PJ Dozier (right adductor strain) did not play. Denver expects Barton and the dossier to be available at some point during the series.
Sons: Did not play forward Abdel Nadar (surgery on right knee). … Sons forward Torrey Craig did well against his former team, scoring nine points and getting seven rebounds in 15 minutes. …Sons shot from 64% of the field in the second half, including 46% from 3-point range.
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