With a recital by Chris Paul, the Phoenix Suns finished the Western Conference semifinal against the Denver Nuggets 4-0 on Sunday with a final victory in which Nikola Jokic, the NBA MVP, was sent off.
Veteran Chris Paul gave another masterclass with 37 points and 7 assists for Phoenix’s 125-118 triumph, which will now face the Los Angeles Clippers or Utah Jazz in the West final.
In front of his audience, the Nuggets of Argentine Facundo Campazzo (14 points and 4 triples) put a hard point and end to a season in which they had overcome numerous injuries, especially that of his figure Jamal Murray.
Victim of frustration, Serbian Nikola Jokic (22 points and 11 rebounds) was sent off in the third quarter for a hard blow to Cameron Payne when he tried to snatch the ball from him.
“He wanted to change the rhythm of the game, he wanted to give us some energy (…) so I tried to make a hard foul,” Jokic explained to the media. «Did I give him, didn’t I give him? We do not know. So I apologize if I did it because I did not want to hit him on the head or injure him.
Nuggets coach Mike Malone was more critical of the umpires’ decision.
“It did not seem to me that he deserved an expulsion because he made a play with the ball,” he stressed. “I’m still a little surprised they sent the MVP off on a play like this.”
Jokic became the second current MVP (Most Valuable Player) to be sent off in the last 25 playoffs, after Stephen Curry in 2016.
He was also the first to be swept 4-0 since 1989, when Magic Johnson fell by that score with his Lakers in the Finals against the Pistons.
Before and after Jokic’s departure, the game was dominated by Chris Paul who, at 36, has posted a stratospheric averages of 25.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 10.3 assists in this series.
“This is not about me, it is about us, it is about what you can achieve when you play as a team and it is a lot of fun to be part of it,” stressed the point guard.
The Suns, who eliminated defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, will play their first conference final since 2010, the year of their last playoff appearance.
– End of Campazzo’s first year –
In a final attempt to turn the tide of the tie, Malone left Campazzo and Austin Rivers on the bench for the first time in these playoffs to introduce Monte Morris and Will Barton.
The new quintet did not have the desired effect and Jokic again lacked sufficient offensive support from his teammates.
At the same time, Chris Paul set the high pace of play that interested the Suns and Booker passed over the Denver defense, with 21 of his 34 points in the first half.
Campazzo took to the field with eight minutes played and tried to revolutionize the game with his usual intensity and a great triple from the corner falling.
Trying to save the honor, Denver came within a single point (71-70) at the start of the third quarter, but Chris Paul thwarted the attempt with four straight mid-range shots to the heart of the Nuggets.
Again eight points down (83-75), Jokic, with an unusual hardness in him, gave a strong slap to the ball controlled by Cameron Payne, hitting him in the face with his arm.
Immediately Booker ran to recriminate the action to the ‘Joker’ and both had to be separated by their companions.
The referees declared a flagrant foul 2 by the Serbian that led to his immediate expulsion with 3 minutes and 52 seconds left in the third quarter.
Even without Jokic, who apologized to Payne on his way to the locker room, the Nuggets didn’t throw in the towel in the fourth quarter.
We fought when Jokic left. We try to be brave, play without fear, defend hard. It was either win or go home, “explained Campazzo.
With several three-point ‘bombs’ from Campazzo and Will Barton, the Nuggets came within five points, but again Chris Paul with 7 consecutive points sealed the pass to the second conference final of his career.
– “Always behind them” –
The Nuggets fell apart in this series against the Suns after a difficult season in which they overcame numerous adversities and beat Damian Lillard’s Portland Trail Blazers with unexpected clarity (4-2) in the first round.
But the West’s semi-finals have been a completely different story against Phoenix, the West’s runner-up in the regular season, which once again showed itself as a perfectly oiled team.
“It is unfair to say that the last game condemned us,” acknowledged Campazzo. “Throughout the series it was difficult for us to stop their offense, they had an answer for everything, we were always behind them.”
The Suns will now have a few additional days off before starting the West final where, the last time they played it with Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire, they lost 4-2 to the Los Angeles Lakers of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. (AFP)