Suns pull away late to complete sweep of Nuggets, advance to West Finals
Bucks even series against undermanned Nets behind Antetokounmpo's big game
Chris Paul couldn't miss. Devin Booker couldn't be stopped.
The Nuggets? Well, they went down fighting.
Paul scored 37 points and Booker added 34 in a physical game marred by MVP Nikola Jokic's ejection for a flagrant foul in the third quarter.
CP3 IS UP TO 33.<br><br>SUNS UP 11 WITH 3 MINUTES LEFT.<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/NBAPlayoffs?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#NBAPlayoffs</a> on TNT <a href="https://t.co/AaMo61Q41G">pic.twitter.com/AaMo61Q41G</a>—@NBA
Jokic was tossed with 3:52 left in the third and his Nuggets trailing 83-76 after his hard right-hand windmill swipe sent the ball flying but also caught Cameron Payne in the face.
Jokic said he meant only to commit a hard foul on Payne to spark his team.
"I wanted to change the rhythm of the game, I wanted to give us some energy," Jokic said. "I tried to make a hard foul. Did I hit him? I didn't know. I say sorry if I did because I didn't want to injure him or hit him in the head on purpose."
Booker took umbrage at the hard foul and got in the big man's face before teammates and coaches pulled everyone apart.
"It was just an emotional play," Booker said. "I don't think he meant harm by it. It was just a frustration foul. It was tough, just defending my teammate. That was it.
"I saw him go up to Cam after and apologize. I've played against the Joker multiple times. I know he's not a malicious player."
Officials assessed a double technical on Jokic and Booker and after a review, ejected the MVP after upgrading his foul to a Flagrant 2. Jokic finished with 22 points and 11 rebounds in 28 minutes.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone said he watched the play while the officials reviewed the call "and I just assumed it would be a Flagrant 1 at the worst."
Suns coach Monty Williams also was taken aback.
"I didn't really think it was anything malicious," Williams said. "In those moments you have to regulate your emotions. That's what we've been talking about all season long."
"At replay review, we saw wind up, impact and follow through, which lead to unnecessary and excessive contact above the shoulders and also into the face," crew chief David Guthrie explained.
With their franchise-record seventh straight playoff victory, the Suns advanced to the conference championship for the first time since 2010 — the last time they even reached the playoffs.
After knocking out LeBron James and the defending champion Lakers in Round 1, the Suns quickly dispatched Denver and made Jokic the first MVP to get swept in a playoff series since Magic Johnson in 1989.
Will Barton led Denver, which trailed by 13 heading into the fourth quarter, with 25 points, Michael Porter Jr. added 20 and Monte Morris 19.
The Nuggets survived the loss of star Jamal Murray to a torn ACL on April 12, winning 13 of 18 to close out the regular season and taking care of Portland in five games in the opening round.
They went farther than any of last year's semifinalists, but they sorely missed Murray against the loaded Suns.
"Hopefully we can start next season fresh and healthy as possible to make another run at this thing," Malone said.
Every time the Nuggets made a run, Paul was there to stop it. His 37-point outburst was one more than his age and marked his best production in three years.
"It was a great series for him," Morris said. "Salute to Chris Paul. He played amazing."
Booker credited Paul and his veteran leadership for transforming the Suns from an up-and-coming team in the bubble last year to a championship contender this summer.
"You can ask anybody on this team how has Chris developed your game and everybody's going to have a lengthy answer because he cares," Booker said.
Thanks in large part to Paul, Jokic became the first MVP to get swept in a playoff series since the Pistons downed Magic Johnson and the Lakers in four in the NBA Finals in 1989.
Jokic's ejection came 48 hours after an emotional celebration before Game 3 in which the Serbian dedicated his MVP trophy to his teammates, coaches, trainers and the front office.
The only NBA player to play all 72 games this season, Jokic spent the fourth quarter in his locker room as his teammates' comeback without him fell short.
"We've never been in that position all season with Nikola not being out there," Morris said not long after fans streamed from the arena chanting "MVP! MVP!"
Bucks even series with win over undermanned Nets
Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton finally are getting a little more help, while Kevin Durant keeps seeing his superstar cohorts get hurt.
And now a second-round playoff series that once looked like a Brooklyn Nets runaway suddenly is up for grabs.
Antetokounmpo scored 34 points and the Bucks rolled to a 107-96 Game 4 victory on Sunday to tie their series with the Nets, who lost Kyrie Irving to a sprained right ankle.
"We're very happy, but we've got to keep getting better, keep playing together and hopefully we can go into Brooklyn and take one," Antetokounmpo said.
Brooklyn's immediate concern is the health of its superstar trio.
Irving got hurt midway through the second quarter and didn't return. The Nets already are missing nine-time All-Star and 2018 MVP James Harden, who hasn't played since the opening minute of Game 1 due to right hamstring tightness.
That puts even more pressure on Durant, who has carried the Nets this series and provided 28 points and 13 rebounds Sunday. The only other Net in double figures was Irving, who had 11 points before leaving.
Nets coach Steve Nash said after the game that X-rays taken on Irving's ankle were negative and that the seven-time All-Star's status for Game 5 is uncertain at this point.
"We'll have to see how it goes," Nash said. "We'll cross our fingers."
After Irving made a basket in the paint to cut the Bucks' lead to 44-40 midway through the second quarter, his left leg hit the right leg of Antetokounmpo on his way down. Irving landed awkwardly, his ankle rolled and he clutched at it as play briefly continued on the other end of the floor.
P.J. Tucker from his spot. 🎯<br><br>13 PTS, 7 REB, 3 3PM, and hustle plays all day from P.J. Tucker to help the <a href="https://twitter.com/Bucks?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Bucks</a> even the series.<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/ThatsGame?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#ThatsGame</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/PhantomCam?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#PhantomCam</a> <a href="https://t.co/6JudHEbYE3">pic.twitter.com/6JudHEbYE3</a>—@NBA
When play stopped due to a change of possession, team officials went to check on Irving, who appeared in pain on the floor before walking to the locker room. The Nets announced at halftime that Irving wouldn't return.
The Bucks already had taken the lead for good even before Irving's injury.
They got more balance Sunday after eking out an 86-83 victory in Game 3, when Middleton and Antetokounmpo combined for 68 points, 79 per cent of the Bucks' scoring output. That marked the highest percentage of a team's points that a duo had combined to score in any NBA playoff game ever.
Middleton scored 19 points, Jrue Holiday had 14, P.J. Tucker got 13 and Bryn Forbes added 10 for the Bucks. Holiday had nine assists and Middleton had eight.
After the Nets scored 13 straight points to take a 34-23 lead early in the second quarter, Milwaukee responded with a 21-4 run to take the lead for good. That stretch featured a 12-0 spurt including a four-point play from Middleton, two corner 3-pointers from Tucker and a dunk from Antetokounmpo.
"They went on a run," forward Jeff Green said, "and we just didn't bounce back."
The Nets removed their starters as the Bucks led 99-84 with 4:28 left.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, the Fiserv Forum crowd changed, "Bucks In Six!" That's been a rallying cry among the fan base ever since former Milwaukee guard Brandon Jennings incorrectly predicted his eighth-seeded Bucks would win a 2013 first-round series over the top-seeded Heat in six games.
"Now it's a three-game series," Nash said. "We've got to get home, rest up and get our minds and bodies ready. Stay positive."
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