In what may be the most important playoff series of this Denver Nuggets team’s tenure together, the Nuggets rose to the occasion and then some to start things off.

Jamal Murray led the way with 34 points and nine assists as the Nuggets won 125-108 against the Phoenix Suns, taking a 1-0 lead in the series. Murray was spectacular throughout the evening, hunting mismatches and gaps in the Suns defense that proved to be a bit more porous than expected.

“He’s a bad man,” head coach Michael Malone said of his starting point guard postgame. “Jamal Murray lives for this.”

Nikola Jokić didn’t have his best game offensively, a ho-hum 24 points on 9-of-21 from the field. He struggled around the rim and missed shots he normally makes. He also only had five assists tonight with the ball in Murray’s hands more frequently. Still, Jokić’s defense was aggressive, and he made a lot of important rotations while blitzing Durant and Booker. The Suns found Deandre Ayton on slips into the middle of the floor early on, but that slowed down as Denver’s rotations got better and better as the game progressed. Jokić also put up an absurd 19 rebounds, one off another 20-20 game.

Aaron Gordon also made a major impact. 23 points on 13 shots is big time. He hit 3-of-4 three-pointers and also hit both of his free throws, competing hard with Durant and Booker on defense as well. He made shots that he may not make again with such frequency later in the series, but the fact that he made them was a welcome sight. He doesn’t have to hold post position against Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert anymore, so perhaps he will be more fresh for a Durant/Booker matchup.

The Nuggets outshot the Suns from three tonight, the biggest reason why they won. Denver hit 16-of-37 three-pointers (43.2%) compared to just 7-of-23 (30.4%) three-pointers for Phoenix. The Nuggets battled on the glass, won the turnover battle, and simply out-hustled the Suns in this first win.

Here are my takeaways from the Nuggets Game 1 matchup against the Suns on Saturday evening:

The Nuggets were absolutely ready to compete

All week leading up to this game, there was a comfortability in the Denver Nuggets. There was an understanding of just how good they are and that, despite the Suns being favored, they have the self-belief to know what they’re capable of. They feel like they’re the best team in this series, and they were out for blood to prove it in this one.

The Suns made absolutely ridiculous shots in the first quarter and held a 32-31 lead. From there, the Nuggets outscored them 94-76 the rest of the way, forcing turnovers and hitting awesome shots when they needed to. Denver battled defensively, battled on the glass, and ran the Suns out of the gym. Denver’s offense simply kept running on automatic during that stretch too, with several runouts after steals, open threes, and layups in the halfcourt after good ball movement or an offensive rebound.

Bruce Brown played the final 15 minutes of the game that mattered and made a major impact with 14 points, three assists, and three steals. His work attacking the rim helped Denver tremendously throughout the game, putting pressure on the Suns constantly.

Jamal Murray picks up where he left off

A lot of pressure falls on Jamal Murray’s shoulders to be great in this series. The starpower featuring Nikola Jokić, Kevin Durant, and Devin Booker conveniently leaves out Murray, and he’s constantly having to prove that he can rise to the occasion in these moments and carry the team like a star. There’s no doubt that Murray had a great first round series, but many questioned whether he could reach Booker’s level in this series.

Well, mission accomplished in Game 1. Murray was on fire throughout and pushed all of the right buttons. He shot 13-of-24 from the field and 5-of-10 from three-point range on the way to 34 points. The shotmaking was incredible, and he consistently sought out matchups that he deemed to be an advantage. As it turns out, that was the entire Suns roster tonight.

The key this time around was the nine assists compared to just three turnovers though. Murray’s playmaking for others often gets overlooked, but as he got hotter and hotter throughout the game, Murray continuously found open opportunities for teammates that led to easy baskets. His gravity also helped get Jokić going around the rim when Jokić was struggling with his shooting touch in the first half.

“Jamal just continues to add to the legend of playoff Jamal Murray,” shared Malone postgame. “34, nine, and five, and just some big, big shots. When they were trying to go on runs, Jamal seemed to stop it every single time.”

This was what peak Murray looks like. He’s a gamer, somebody who rises to the challenge and is going to feast in primetime. Too often, Murray let’s the game come to him during the regular season and can let opportunities pass him by. In the playoffs, that switch flips. He’s a crouching tiger in these moments, waiting for the smallest opportunity to attack the opposing team and make them pay for any weakness at all.

Nuggets win the math battle

Perhaps the biggest weakness of the Phoenix Suns offense is the math problem. They love to get to the mid-range where Durant, Booker, and Paul are at their most comfortable. The Suns won that way against the Los Angeles Clippers in their first round series, but doing it against the Nuggets is a different story. Denver’s offense is too talented and too good at getting great shots for Phoenix to simply avoid the most efficient spots on the floor.

In the first half, the Nuggets jumped out to a 68-51 lead because of an incredible 37-19 second quarter. During that stretch, the Suns struggled to create consistent shots at the rim, behind the arc, or at the free throw line, while the Nuggets put up a crooked number on the other end with high level shotmaking throughout. The Suns attempted just five threes and five free throws in the half while the Nuggets took 17 and seven respectively. That matters.

In the second half, the Suns got up both threes and free throws, but they didn’t achieve those looks at a cray rate. The Nuggets stuck with it defensively all evening and made every shot difficult for Phoenix. Durant especially saw a drop-off in effectiveness as the game wore on, and that comes down to the effort put in by Aaron Gordon all night.

“He wants that matchup, and he’s doing a great job,” Murray shared about Gordon guarding Durant. “KD’s hitting tough shots, man…but AG’s sticking with it.”

The Nuggets stuck with it as a team tonight to the tune of incredible results.

This was the exact way the Nuggets needed to start this playoff series. The Suns were the favorite for a reason with elite talent and shotmaking. They’re dynamic, but so are the Nuggets. Denver showed up in a big way on their home floor and sent a message to the Suns: we aren’t scared of you.

The series is long, and the Nuggets still have to collect three wins off the Suns to advance. Phoenix will find ways to bounce back, make more shots, and maybe even find a way to cool down Jamal Murray. Still, they’re the team that has to make major adjustments to try and steal Game 2 on Monday. Denver can continue to play their game, be physical, and attack the holes in Phoenix’s defense that manifested tonight.

Whatever happens though, the Nuggets have the Suns’ and the NBA’s attention. They’re a problem, and there may be no solving what Denver can bring to the table night after night.

Final Rotations