DENVER (AP) — Deandre Ayton scrutinized the box score and couldn't believe his eyes as he read Nikola Jokic's stat line: 32 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists.
“That’s insane. That’s the MVP,” Ayton said after the Phoenix Suns overcame the Joker's historic triple-double to thump Denver 116-102 Friday night, putting the Nuggets on the brink of elimination.
Following a raucous pregame ceremony celebrating his MVP award, Jokic joined Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players with 30 points, 20 boards and 10 assists in an NBA playoff game. Jokic, though, was apologetic afterward, telling his teammates this loss was on him because of his 13-for-29 shooting performance.
Nonsense, said Denver guard Monte Morris, who called Jokic's performance phenomenal.
“He's carrying us," Morris said. "We've got to help him.”
Morris scored 21 off the bench but Denver's four other starters scored just 30 points, half by Michael Porter Jr., who was 5 of 13 from the floor.
Devin Booker scored 28 points and teamed with Chris Paul to lead a steady offensive onslaught that countered Jokic's big night.
“We knew this was going to be an emotional game for them with Joker being presented with the trophy before the game,” Paul said. “We just talked about withstanding their runs.”
Jokic seemed to consider his big game more horrific than historic.
“I’m frustrated with myself because I missed shots,” said Jokic, who also missed four of nine free throws. “I didn’t play on top of my game, especially shooting wise. It would be much easier for us if I started making shots. Of course, they’re making it tough for me to make shots.”
With their sixth straight victory, the second-seeded Suns took a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. Game 4 is Sunday at Ball Arena.
Paul had 27 points, eight assists and three steals for the Suns, who pulled away after halftime for the third straight time. All five of Phoenix's starters scored in double figures.
They are a one win away from their first trip to the Western Conference Finals since 2009-10 — which was the last time Phoenix made the playoffs.
The third-seeded Nuggets, who reached the conference finals last year, are on the brink of getting swept in a playoff series for the first time since the Lakers bounced them out of the first round in 2007-08.
Jokic dedicated his MVP award to his teammates during a loud pregame ceremony that Nuggets coach Michael Malone had hoped would energize his team that has lost by 17, 25 and now 14 points in this second-round series.
“I just feel bad that we weren’t able to pull out a win for them because they made this atmosphere electric,” Malone said of the crowd of 18,277.
“During the trophy ceremony, we said right when they get off the court let’s go out there and be locked in,” Booker relayed.
Suns coach Monty Williams said his team was ready for the energy boost the big crowd supplied by serenading Jokic.
“We didn’t want to disrespect Jokic’s moment. At the same time, we also came here to win a game," Williams said. "That’s something we stressed for a while, being able to have poise in those moments. Whether it’s an emotional fouling situation or something like tonight.”
The Nuggets' first MVP was mostly MIA early on as the Suns shot a sizzling 74.46% in jumping out to a 37-27 lead after one quarter. Jokic scored seven points in that quarter but none until the 4:45 mark.
Malone, who accused his team of quitting after a blowout loss in Game 2, said before tip-off that he liked his team's resiliency, and that opinion didn't change afterward.
“I thought our guys played really hard. I think we let it all out there,” Malone said. “I really think this game came down to two things: turnovers” and the Suns’ 14-2 run spanning the third and fourth quarter.
That's something they couldn't overcome, not even with their MVP giving them another epic MVP performance.
Suns: Phoenix led by double digits much of the first half, but went cold over the final 90 seconds of the second quarter, allowing the Nuggets to pull to 59-55 at halftime. … The Suns shot 50% in the first half both from beyond the arc and from the field, and they made all 11 of their free throws.
Nuggets: Missed their first seven shots after halftime, sapping them of the momentum they took into the break by closing on a 6-0 run. … Will Barton added 14 points in his second game back from a hamstring injury.
By ARNIE STAPLETON AP Sports Writer