Nuggets rout Suns in Game 6, advance to Western Conference Finals

PHOENIX — In this same building, at the Nuggets’ most vulnerable moment of the first two rounds of their prove-it playoffs, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope issued a promise.

“We’re making it out of this series,” the 30-year-old former NBA champion said, speaking for a team still chasing its first. After back-to-back losses to unfurl a 2-0 series lead, confidence was difficult to find for the the top seed in the West.

Caldwell-Pope kept the promise himself.

His 17-point first quarter was only the tip of the iceberg as the Suns froze over Thursday night at Footprint Center. With a 125-100 Game 6 win in Phoenix to snap the series-long streak of home team triumphs, the Denver Nuggets advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the second time in the last four seasons and fifth time in franchise history.

The Nuggets have never reached the NBA Finals. Their newest chance to become the most accomplished team of their 47 years in the league starts Tuesday with Game 1 at Ball Arena. Their challenger: the No. 6 seed Golden State Warriors or No. 7 seed Los Angeles Lakers. Steph Curry or LeBron James. This era’s winningest team or the West’s all-time winningest team.

Caldwell-Pope played for the Los Angeles squad that eliminated the Nuggets then won the title back in the 2020 pandemic bubble. He has been one of the most important additions this season for a team that identifies by its two-time MVP center but thrives on its depth more than past years. He injected the Nuggets with a reminder of their championship capabilities in Game 6.

Coach Michael Malone had credited Caldwell-Pope for spurring the team’s strong start in Game 5. This time, 90 minutes after Malone identified poise as the trait he needed to see most in the opening minutes, KCP calmly pounced at all the right moments. He generated his own scoring with defense, forcing two early turnovers and converting fast-break layups out of both. He made 3s on back-to-back possessions. He made acrobatic finishes at the rim.

A 21-2 run late in the first quarter stunned Phoenix. By halftime, Denver made the desert boo its own pride and joy.

Nikola Jokic finished with 32 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists with Deandre Ayton hurt and backups guarding him — his 11th career playoff triple-double and third in the last four games. Jamal Murray, playing in spite of a non-COVID illness, put together a 26-point night. Those three combined for 59 points on 22-for-29 shooting in the first half. The Nuggets didn’t turn the ball over until three minutes remained in the second quarter. They led 81-51 at the intermission.

Meanwhile, the Suns’ brightest stars dimmed with the season on the line. Kevin Durant and Devin Booker shot a combined 6 for 23 in the first half. Durant started 1 for 10 and ended up with a 23-point night on 19 field goal attempts. Booker, who carried Phoenix through two rounds, finally cooled off with Caldwell-Pope hounding him. At the end of a timeout late in the first half, injured guard Chris Paul pulled aside Durant after the huddle and talked to him individually. They shared a quick handshake as Durant walked back to the scorer’s table.

He was headed back to the slaughterhouse. The Nuggets added an 8-2 run after the timeout, punctuated by circus layups for Michael Porter Jr. and Bruce Brown.

This is the second consecutive year Phoenix’s season has ended with an embarrassing second-round blowout at home. The Mavericks also led by exactly 30 at halftime of Game 7 last season, en route to a 123-90 win. This time, Suns fans started clearing out with 8:25 remaining. Coach Monty Williams emptied his bench with six minutes left.

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