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Monday June 14th, 2021 2:19AM

Rejuvenated Paul leads Suns over Nuggets 122-105 in Game 1

By The Associated Press
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PHOENIX (AP) — Chris Paul and his rejuvenated right shoulder scored 21 points and dished 11 assists, Mikal Bridges added 23 points and the Phoenix Suns beat the Denver Nuggets 122-105 on Monday night in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals.

The Suns trailed for most of the first half and by 10 points early in the third quarter but rallied to take the lead by late in the third. Devin Booker made a 27-foot, step back 3-pointer and Bridges added a driving layup for a 79-72 advantage.

They pushed the lead to 88-79 going into the fourth. Paul — who played with an ailing shooting shoulder through most of the first round matchup against the Lakers — made back-to-back mid-range jumpers to put the Suns up 94-79 with 10:25 left.

The flurry came much to the delight of the sellout crowd of 16,319, who anxiously watched the point guard's every move.

Paul's buckets were the final exclamation points on a 34-9 run that helped Phoenix take control. Deandre Ayton finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds while Booker added 21 points.

It was surprising that the game didn't come down to the final minutes. The three regular-season meetings were all extremely close: One was decided by three points in regulation, another was settled in overtime and the other went to double overtime.

Game 2 is on Wednesday in Phoenix.

Nikola Jokic led the Nuggets with 22 points but went cold while the Suns made their second half run. Aaron Gordon added 18 points while Michael Porter Jr. had 15.

The big man matchup between Jokic and Ayton delivered in the first quarter as the two teams fought to a 28-all tie. Ayton threw down a thunderous dunk over Michael Porter Jr. while Jokic used his strength and positioning to make five of six shots.

Denver led 58-57 at halftime. Jokic had 15 points and six rebounds before the break while Booker and Ayton countered with 11 points each for the Suns.

CP3'S SHOULDER

All eyes were on Paul in the opening minutes, especially after his ailing right shoulder was inadvertently bumped by Denver point guard Facundo Campazzo.

The 11-time All-Star looked uncomfortable for a moment but recovered quickly. He made a 3-pointer in the second quarter and then a turnaround jumper.

He really started to look like his old self in the fourth quarter, when he knocked down back-to-back jumpers to push the Suns up 15. Partly because of the shoulder injury, Paul averaged just 9.2 points per game against the Lakers in the first round.

NO SOUR GRAPES

Suns coach Monty Williams finished second in the NBA Coach of the Year, just behind the New York Knicks' Tom Thibodeau.

It was the closest balloting since this version of voting was introduced 19 years ago. Thibodeau got 43 first-place votes and finished with 351 total points, while Phoenix’s Monty Williams actually got more first-place votes — he got 45 — but finished with 340 points.

Williams wasn't upset to finish second, especially since the winner was Thibodeau. The two worked together when they were assistant coaches with USA basketball.

“It's pretty cool to watch someone I've worked with win an award like that,” Williams said.

FLAVORTOWN IN PHOENIX

Celebrity chef Guy Fieri was among the fans sitting courtside at Phoenix Suns Arena. The band Jimmy Eat World, which was formed in Mesa, Arizona, in the 1990s and had a string of hits in the 2000s, performed at halftime.

TIP-INS

Nuggets: Guards Jamal Murray (left ACL surgery), Will Barton (right hamstring strain) and P.J. Dozier (right adductor strain) didn't play. Denver hopes that Barton and Dozier could be available at some point during the series.

Suns: Forward Abdel Nader (right knee surgery) didn't play. ... Suns F Torrey Craig had a good performance against his former team, scoring nine points and grabbing seven rebounds in 15 minutes.

___

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