PHOENIX — As boos filled the air in Footprint Center at halftime on Thursday, Nikola Jokic made his way back toward the Denver Nuggets locker room.
Jokic sauntered through the back hallway in his usual nonchalant body language without a hint of the fact that the Nuggets were up 30 and well on their way back to the Western Conference finals.
As they have all season long, the Nuggets followed the two-time MVP’s lead with all-business looks on their faces. The Nuggets are on a mission to reach the NBA Finals and they are one step away from that after destroying the Suns 125-100 in Game 6 to eliminate Phoenix, 4-2.
The Nuggets are returning to the Western Conference finals for the first time since losing the conference championship to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2020 Orlando bubble.
Denver will host either the Golden State Warriors or the Los Angeles Lakers starting next Tuesday.
Jokic returns to the next round on an absolute tear. He completed a phenomenal series with his third triple-double in four games, notching 32 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds while making 13-of-18 shots. The Suns simply had no answer for Jokic, who averaged a 30-point triple-double in the second round.
Jokic and the Nuggets have been focused all season long on winning the franchise’s first-ever NBA title. They finished with the West’s top seed, winning 53 games, and Jokic was a leading candidate in the MVP race once again.
But the Nuggets have also flown a bit under the radar. After trading for Kevin Durant, the Suns became a popular choice to come out of the Western Conference playoffs and were even a favorite entering their series against the Nuggets despite being the lower fourth seed.
And even as they await the winner of the Lakers-Warriors series, the Nuggets know they’ll be facing a team with a bigger profile nationally in either the LeBron James-led Lakers or the Steph Curry-led defending champion Warriors.
Either way, the Nuggets will be looking for a little payback. They last lost to the Lakers in the 2020 Western Conference finals, 4-1. And the Warriors eliminated the Nuggets, who did not have an injured Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., in five games in the first round last postseason.
For Murray, it has been a long journey back to the conference finals stage. He had a breakout postseason in the bubble when he averaged 26.5 points, 6.6 assists and averaged 50.5% shooting, including making 45.3% from behind the arc.
Murray tore his left ACL the following season on April 12, 2021 and missed two consecutive postseasons. While struggling with his 3-point shot for stretches against the Suns, Murray averaged 25.9 points, 6.7 assists and 5.3 rebounds this postseason entering Game 6 against Phoenix.
But earlier in the day on Thursday, Murray was added to the injury report with a non-COVID-19 illness. The point guard was unable to participate in the morning shootaround, which the Nuggets cut short because some members of the team were feeling under the weather as well. Murray started, though, and had 26 points, four assists and four rebounds.
The Suns, though, could not contain Murray’s backcourt mate Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Brought in to provide championship experience and defense from his Lakers days, Caldwell-Pope started the game on fire and finished with 21 points and 7-for-11 shooting. Behind Caldwell-Pope’s aggressive play and Jokic’s steady direction, the Nuggets built an 81-51 lead at the half.
The Suns were booed off the court as they retreated to their locker room at intermission down 30, a replay of the soundtrack they heard at halftime of Game 7 of last year’s second round against the Dallas Mavericks. This is only the fourth time in NBA history a team facing elimination trailed by 30 or more at the half, and the Suns were part of that wrong side of history two of those times according to research by ESPN Stats & Information.
This certainly was not what Suns coach Monty Williams could have imagined when Phoenix traded for Durant before the trade deadline.
But injuries hurt Phoenix. Chris Paul sustained a groin injury in Game 2 and did not play the rest of the series. And the Suns were without center Deandre Ayton (ribs) in what would be the Suns’ home finale.
Devin Booker and Durant, both averaging over 42 minutes per game this postseason entering Game 6, may have finally run out of gas as they both combined to shoot 12-for-32 from the field. Booker was held to just 12 points after entering the game averaging 34.6 points in the series.
The Nuggets’ stifling defense and will played a big role in that as well. In their first two postseason runs with this core of Jokic and Murray in 2019 and 2020, the Nuggets went to a seventh game in four playoff series. This postseason, Denver’s fifth straight, the Nuggets have been better at finishing a series earlier. They are 2-1 when they have had the chance to eliminate their opponent and are through to the conference finals in a total of 11 games.
Malone said he didn’t need to hammer home to his team what was at stake in his pre-game meeting with the Nuggets. He echoed what Jokic had said after Game 5, that the Nuggets didn’t want to chance this series going to a Game 7 where anything can happen.
“We have a veteran group,” Malone said before Game 6. “We have guys that been around the block a few times and I think our guys understand, to me it comes down to the mindset of not relying upon the fact that, oh, we can go home and win Game 7. If that’s your approach, you’re going to get beat tonight.
“Our approach should be that we’re down and this is a must win. And if that’s your mentality, you’re going to give yourself a much greater chance than having that ace in the pocket [of], well, we have the comfort of the friendly confines of Ball Arena. I don’t want to hear that. We’re here. We have a job to do. Get the job done tonight.”