PHOENIX – It all seemed too easy up to this juncture

So, naturally intuition kicked in for Michael Malone before tipoff Friday of Denver’s 121-114 loss at Phoenix in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals.

“We’ve had no adversity in the postseason yet,” he said. “Things have gone really, really smooth.”

Continuing with that thought, Malone tapped a table twice to emphasize the point.

  1. Supporting cast delivers

The Phoenix big four of Durant, Booker, Paul, and Deandre Ayton combined to score a whopping 85.7% of the Suns’ points over the first two games of this series, with the supporting cast chipping in a total of 32 points over that span. So, the outcome of Game 3 came as a pleasant surprise for the home team, in part because of coach Monty Williams’s decision to utilize veterans T.J. Warren and Terrence Ross for more scoring punch off the bench.

Phoenix’s reserves outscored the Denver backups 22-20, and Warren led the way with seven points, followed by Jock Landale (six), Ross (five) and Landry Shamet (four). Warren was 2-for-4 in the fourth quarter for five points, including a 23-footer with 2:23 remaining that gave the Suns an eight-point lead (112-104).

  1. Phoenix looked faster without CP3

Cameron Payne pushed the pace for the Suns as the replacement for Paul in the starting lineup and managed to hold down turnovers with only one in the game, as Phoenix stormed to a 67-52 lead at intermission. The 28-year-old guard admitted that while Paul might score more efficiently in the midrange, he’d bring a boost of speed to the Suns’ starting group. Payne certainly did that in helping Phoenix to a quick start, dishing three assists in the opening half to go with four points while Booker poured in 14 of the team’s first 21 points to start the game.

 “They played fast tonight,” Malone said. “Cameron Payne really set the tone with that. Makes, misses, turnovers, they got out and ran.”

  1. Suns finally handle non-Jokic minutes

Two-time Kia MVP Nikola Jokic checked out of the game with 39.1 seconds left in the third quarter and returned with 10:29 remaining on the heels of Phoenix embarking on a 7-0 run with him off the floor.

That’s rare and marked the first time all series the Suns dominated the non-Jokic minutes.

In fact, before the game, Williams even conceded defeat in that area up to that point.

“They’ve won that battle,” Williams said during pregame availability. “So, that’s on me to figure out a combination that can help us with that. They’ve been really physical with their switching. There’s opportunities for us to exploit it better. But they’ve been really good in that rotation part of the game.”

  1. Down 0-2, KD more assertive

Williams took issue with the notion that Durant should assert himself more after a 10-for-27 shooting performance in Game 2, but that’s precisely what the former Kia MVP did in the face of a rough shooting start to Game 3.

Durant was a cold 1-for-7 in the opening quarter for three points, before finishing the opening half 5-for-16 with 21 points that included 11 points from the free-throw line. Despite all the early misfires, Durant never stopped letting them fly, which was encouraging considering the lack of Suns contributions outside of Booker and the 34 year old on a night that Ayton (four points) virtually disappeared offensively.

  1. Murray struggles in the fourth

Murray rebounded somewhat from a 3-for-15 shooting night in Game 2 to rack up a team-high 32 points in Game 3, as he combined with Jokic for 62 points. The problem is Murray shot 33.3% from deep, knocking down just 1 of 8 from the floor in the decisive fourth quarter for four points.

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