By DAVID BRANDT
AP Sports Writer
The Phoenix Suns’ star quartet of Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton looked mighty average in their Game 1 loss to the Denver Nuggets.
Now it’s gut check time when the Suns try to even the series in Game 2 on Monday in Denver.
There’s certainly reason to believe the Suns have what it takes to bounce back. Phoenix lost Game 1 to the Los Angeles Clippers in the opening round before reeling off four straight wins to advance.
“This group has been here already so we understand what it takes to emotionally settle down,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “Understand it’s a big game coming up. And our guys have played a number of big games.”
The biggest problem for Phoenix? This Denver team appears vastly superior to the Clippers team the Suns eliminated in round one.
Jamal Murray scored a game-high 34 points and Nikola Jokic added 24 points and 19 rebounds in the Nuggets’ 125-107 Game 1 victory on Saturday. It was a thoroughly dominant win for Denver, which broke the game open in the second quarter and never looked back.
Denver had a 49-38 advantage in rebounding, including 16-8 on the offensive glass. The Suns turned the ball over 16 times while the Nuggets only had nine.
“The difference is in possessions, turnovers, and offensive rebounds,” Williams said. “They just destroyed us tonight. We have to regroup and do a much better job at playing with pace on offense. I thought we slowed down tonight for whatever reason.”
The Suns made it to the NBA Finals in 2021, sweeping the Nuggets in the second round along the way. But Murray missed that series with an injury and now that he’s returned, the balance of power might have shifted.
Murray shot 13 of 24 from the field, including 6 of 10 on 3-pointers in Game 1.
“When Jamal Murray is fully healthy, locked, and loaded, we know what he is capable of and it is just so fun to watch him perform at the level he’s performing at,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.
76ERS AT CELTICS
Game 1, 7:30 p.m. EDT, TNT
— NEED TO KNOW: Philadelphia and Boston have a rich postseason history, meeting 21 times, with the Celtics winning 14 of the series. The last time the 76ers won was the 1982 Eastern Conference finals matchup when Philadelphia took Game 7 in Boston.
— KEEP AN EYE ON: Celtics forward Jaylen Brown had a terrific scoring series in the opening round against the Hawks. He averaged 26.7 points per game and shot better than 51% from 3-point range.
— INJURY WATCH: All eyes are on 76ers star Joel Embiid, who missed the final game of the Nets series with a sprained right knee. Embiid was spotted going through a handful of drills after Philadelphia’s practice on Sunday and was “still improving” according to coach Doc Rivers. But his status remains doubtful, Rivers told reporters Sunday. He’s averaged 20 points and 11.3 rebounds in the three games he has played this postseason.
— PRESSURE IS ON: Celtics. The 76ers might be the lower seed but looked like the team to beat in the Eastern Conference after an impressive sweep of the Brooklyn Nets in the opening round.
SUNS AT NUGGETS
Denver leads 1-0. Game 2, 10 p.m. EDT, TNT
— NEED TO KNOW: The top-seeded Nuggets try to take a 2-0 lead against Durant, Booker and the Suns. Denver dominated in a 125-107 Game 1 win on Saturday, led by Jamal Murray’s 34 points.
— KEEP AN EYE ON: The Nuggets outrebounded the Suns 49-38, exposing a problem that has plagued Phoenix at times this season. The Suns need Ayton to produce more than his 14 points and seven rebounds in Game 1.
— INJURY WATCH: The Suns and Nuggets are both relatively healthy. Phoenix backup guard Cameron Payne missed most of the opening round againt the Clippers with a sore back and has yet to re-establish a role in his return. He was instrumental in the Suns’ run to the Finals in 2021.
— PRESSURE IS ON: Suns. The team’s star foursome of Ayton, Booker, Paul, Durant played decent against the Nuggets in Game 1 and Phoenix was still blown out by nearly 20 points. They’re going to have to kick if up a notch — and get more help from role players — if the Nuggets continue to play this well.
AP Sports Writer Pat Graham in Denver and Kyle Hightower in Boston contributed to this report.
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