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Nuggets' spiral leads to Michael Malone's harsh public criticism: 'I felt we quit'

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PHOENIX — The Denver Nuggets were spiraling in the second half for the second consecutive game, failing on multiple occasions to halt the Phoenix Suns’ offensive breakaway onslaught.

But they tried.

Down 21 early in the fourth quarter of Game 2 on Wednesday night, Nuggets power forward Paul Millsap saw an opportunity to use his power and size for an easy scoring opportunity when smaller point guard Cameron Payne switched onto him on the left elbow.

Millsap aggressively drove left and got a step on the guard. He threw up a floater in the lane, but Payne recovered, leaped and spiked the ball out of bounds. It was a clean block, but he caught Millsap with the body and was called for the foul.

With the crowd going berserk, Payne instantly turned to the crowd, urging them to get louder and shouted “I beat that s***. I beat that s***,” in reference to the block that was whistled a foul.

Cameron Payne yells toward the crowd after a foul call.
Phoenix's Cameron Payne reacts to a foul call against the Denver Nuggets during Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals at Phoenix Suns Arena on June 9, 2021. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Suns definitively beat the Nuggets 123-98 to take a 2-0 series lead before the match shifts to Denver for Game 3 on Friday.

Nuggets coach Michael Malone pulled most of his rotation players early in the final frame. On the bench, players looked dejected and mystified.

Will Barton, who made his playoff debut after being sidelined with a hamstring injury, remained in his seat on the bench just staring into space while his teammates were huddled along the baseline during a timeout.

The Suns continued to pile on with their non-rotation players, and Millsap placed a towel over his head, wiping his face and shaking his head from left to right in disbelief of what was taking place.

There was nothing they could do to terminate the Suns’ momentum.

And the raucousness of the 16,000-plus fans caused complications, prompting several Nuggets players throughout the course of the game to encourage each other to communicate louder in order to execute.

Denver hasn’t faced an atmosphere like this in over a year. With the game well in hand, fans began chanting “Suns in four,” and to add another layer of sneering, the crowd started doing the wave.

Michael Malone: 'I felt we quit'

Malone has always praised his team for their fight and ability to bounce back with force after suffering disappointment.

Following the 17-point loss in Game 1, Aaron Gordon and JaMychal Green called out the team in the locker room after the game for collectively displaying a lack of urgency, sources said.

Malone believed his team, including newly minted MVP winner Nikola Jokic, would play a much different game on Wednesday.

They did, but it was much worse. And it led to Malone issuing one of the harshest criticisms a coach can levy on a team.

"I felt we quit tonight, which is something you never want to see," he said after the game. “… I saw one team that wanted to be here, that played with a purpose and urgency, and one team that did not want to be here and played with no urgency. That's why we got our ass kicked.”

Michael Porter Jr. and Monte Morris look dejected while sitting on the bench.
Denver's Michael Porter Jr. and Monte Morris sit on the bench during the final moments of Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals at Phoenix Suns Arena on June 9, 2021. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

It’s not the first time Malone publicly called out his team. The Nuggets do typically respond when faced with adversity. But this trial seems distinct, given how locked in their opponent is.

“They’re playing better than us,” Jokic said after recording 24 points, 13 rebounds and six assists. “They’re rested, they’re making open shots, they’re finding open looks. It looks really bad out there so we need to change everything.”

While the Suns were pouring it on to close the game, the bench was celebrating. Chris Paul, however, was expressionless. He allowed for his younger teammates to enjoy the moment, but his demeanor is setting a tone that what truly matters is securing 10 more wins.

Paul dominated the game from start to finish, ending with 17 points, five rebounds, 15 assists and zero turnovers.

He finished fifth in the MVP race, but he has been second to none in this series.

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