NBA playoffs getting hotFriday, June 18, 2021
BY MARK ARCHER
The Cinderella run of the Phoenix Suns in the current National Basketball Association (NBA) season has been amplified in the play-offs and has everyone paying attention.
After ending the regular season at number 2 in the Western Conference to waltz into the postseason after an eleven-year drought, the Suns dispatched the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the first round and looked the part while demoralising LeBron James and company.
They then took on last year's 'bubble' upstarts, the Denver Nuggets, in one leg of the western semi-finals and made short work of their opponents. The Suns took advantage of Jamal Murray's absence (due to injury) and completed the second sweep of this postseason, even with recently crowned most valuable player (MVP) Nikola Jokic averaging 25 points and just over 13 rebounds in the series.
The Suns were dominant over the first three games, winning those by an average of over 18 points, and when the Nuggets scrapped desperately in a close Game 4 last Sunday (June 13), the pair of Chris Paul and Devin Booker came up with a performance for the ages. Paul finished with a season-high 37 points on 14-of-19 shooting, including nine for nine from the free throw line and he didn't make (or even attempt) a single three-pointer.
Booker, the undeniable breakout star of these play-offs, after scoring 47 in the Suns' first-round closeout game versus the Lakers, put a needed 34 on the Nuggets for the second closeout game of his career. The resilient Nuggets, after Jokic was ejected near the end of the third quarter, kept within striking distance throughout the encounter and even cut Phoenix's lead to four points with eight minutes remaining. However, the guile and experience of Paul, along with the depth of the Phoenix bench proved too much for the West's No 3 seed.
Paul and Booker are the third pair of Suns teammates to record at least 34 points in the same play-off game — joining Charles Barkley/Dan Majerle in 1993 and Steve Nash/Shawn Marion in 2005 — and now have their team laying in wait for either the Utah Jazz or the Los Angeles Clippers once their semi-final series has been completed.
The Suns lost the Western Conference Finals to the Lakers in their last play-off appearance in 2010 and now find themselves in a state of redemption with every opportunity to advance into the NBA Finals. It's well within reach and Paul, at 36, has his first Finals berth at arm's length.
Over in the Eastern Conference, the JustBet favourite Brooklyn Nets find themselves in a ding-dong battle with the Milwaukee Bucks in their semi-final series. Despite losing James Harden to injury in the first minute of Game 1, the Nets managed to secure a narrow eight-point win then proceeded to steamroll their opponents in Game 2 (winning by 39 points) and appeared to be heading for a sweep and their presumptive finals series. The Bucks, however, had other ideas and, in Game 3 in Milwaukee, the Nets were held to unforgivable season lows — 11 points in the first quarter and 83 points for the game.
The Bucks took Game 3 (despite scoring only 86 points) and, behind the 30-point, 12-rebound series average of two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, marched into Game 4 with the utmost confidence — the result was a back-to-back, sub-100-point Brooklyn performance for the first time this season. The back-and-forth game took a significant turn halfway into the second quarter when Kyrie Irving came down from a layup attempt and his right-foot landed awkwardly on Giannis' right foot, forcing him to limp into the locker room. The Bucks made the most of their advantage and built a lead that got up to 19 points and stayed in the teens most of the second half, leading to a comfortable 107-96 Bucks win and the series even at 2-2. Kevin Durant scored 28 points while Irving contributed 11 before his exit and was the only other Net in double figures at the end of the game.
With Brooklyn's title hopes in jeopardy and the 'Big 3' reduced to only one operating at full tilt (Kevin Durant), making a valiant but gimpy return (James Harden) and the other unavailable due to injury (Irving), something spectacular had to happen in Game 5 on Tuesday (June 15) to keep their season alive — and it did. The Nets carved out a 114-108 come-from-behind win to give them room to exhale following the shortfall in the previous two games.
Harden played for the first time since his right hamstring gave way just 43 seconds into the June 5 series opener, desperate to return especially with Irving injured. He played 37 minutes and shot 1-for-10 from the field, missing all eight of his three-point attempts, and went scoreless in the first half. He added six rebounds, eight assists and four turnovers — ending up with only 5 points for the game.
It was therefore left for Durant to shoulder the load — and that he did with spectacular results. He posted 49 points on 16-of-23 shooting (four-of-nine from three-point range), 17 rebounds, 10 assists, three steals and two blocks. With his team's title hopes on life support, Durant played every minute of the game in his first season back from an Achilles tear and sealed his best game yet in a Nets uniform.
Outside of Durant's heroic performance, Jeff Green — the 34-year-old veteran who had missed six of the Nets' nine play-off games with a foot injury — contributed a play-off career-high 27 points (eight-of-11 shooting, seven-of-eight from beyond the arc), dished out eight assists and grabbed six rebounds to help the Nets rally from multiple 17-point deficits and take a 3-2 series lead.
These are a few games left to round off the conference finalists and all remaining teams have similar ambitions. The possibility is high for some seven-game series, and everything will be left on the courts — physically and emotionally. Don't miss a moment.
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