Nuggets Nikola Jokic makes an interception after Suns Devin Booker loses the ball in the fourth quarter of game 2, round 2 of the NBA Championships at Ball Arena on Monday, May 1, 2023. The Nuggets won the game 97-87. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

Denver, not Phoenix, would rise out of the ashes.

In the fourth quarter of Game 2 Monday night the Nuggets became the symbol of hope, confidence, pride and, finally, fulfillment.

The Suns set.

For much of the first three quarters the Nuggets and the Suns were evenly matched in a tug of war, a contest the ancient Greeks termed as helkystinda, which translates to “I pull through." It seemed as if the two playoff teams were playing one of the worst games in the history of history.

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But Nikola Jokic, the Workingman’s Most Valuable Player, and Devin Booker were in their own mano a mano, center vs. guard, star against star tussle.

Then Joker received support and collaboration from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Jamal Murray, Aaron Gordon, Bruce Brown and, at last, Jamal Murray, to grip the rope tighter.

And the Nuggets, who had managed only 18 points in the first quarter and just 40 by halftime, outscored the Suns 27-14 in the final 12 minutes.

They pulled through 97-87 and lead the series 2-0. In NBA conference semifinals previous teams that have won the first two games have won the series 107 times (93.9 percent) and lost only seven series (6.1 percent). The Suns have a serious deficit as the best-of-seven confrontation shifts from Colorado to Arizona for the next Friday and Sunday.

In both games in Denver the Suns really did fade because of fatigue, failure, futility and fragmentation.

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After Kevin Durant joined the Suns’ starting lineup they had been defeated only once in the regular season and the playoffs before Sunday. He has scored 53 points at The Jar in Denver, but he hasn’t been a deciding factor because of turnovers, fouls, defensive inadequacy and 24 missed field goal attempts. Future Hall of Famer Chris Paul was held to 11 points in the opener and eight points last night before he limped off the court to the locker room with left groin tightness. And the Phoenix bench has been splintered. Booker has been the latest version of Anthony Edwards with 27 and 35 points, but he disappeared like a magician’s assistant in the final quarter with four points.

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The Suns barely scratched from when they trailed 84-81 with 4:54 remaining and didn’t score a point for the next three minutes to be out of the game at 91-81.

Nikola was magnificent when the sky was falling, holding up the Nuggets with 39 points, 16 rebounds and (only) five assists because the Nuggets, particularly Murray and Michael Porter, couldn’t shoot straight most of the evening. Yet, Jokic would depend on the rarified air Gordon, who had 16.

The guard with the hyphenated name, Caldwell-Pope, couldn’t buy an invitation to the All-Star game weekend’s three-point contest because he didn’t have enough to qualify. How do you like him now, NBA?

He had three of the most critical three-pointers of his career in the fourth quarter that turned a close game into another blowout.

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The first quarter for both teams was more miss than hit as two high-powered offenses combined for only 39 points. The Nuggets barely beat the Suns in the second quarter scoring, 22-21.

This was beginning to seem like a basketball game out of the original NBA in the late 1940 – when the original Nuggets existed and Phoenix was just a desert town. The defense on both sides was tenacious and physical, as promised by the Suns, and the offenses were horrendous.

The scoring pace and the tempo picked up in the third quarter, but the Nuggets were behind 73-70. After they tied the Suns at 73, they streamed ahead by five, and Murray and Porter would score, and Jokic kept making shots and pulling down rebounds.

The game was over at 91-81.

In the same arena where the Avalanche were eliminated from the playoffs the night before the Nuggets were exhilarated with their six postseason victory in seven games.

The Nuggets would rise from the ashes, and the Suns turned to dust.

Woody Paige has been a sports and general columnist in Colorado with the Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Colorado Springs Gazette and The Denver Gazette since 1974. He has been a commentator for the ESPN network on six different shows for 20 years.

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