LOS ANGELES: The Denver Nuggets crushed the Phoenix Suns 125-100 on Thursday to become the first team to reach the NBA conference finals as the Boston Celtics forced a decisive game seven against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Western Conference top seeds Denver dominated from start to finish in Phoenix as they polished off the Suns 4-2 in their best-of-seven conference semifinal.
The Nuggets reached the conference finals for the first time since the Covid 'bubble' in Florida in 2020 and will face either reigning champions Golden State or the Los Angeles Lakers, who hold a 3-2 lead in their series and host the Warriors on Friday.
Two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic delivered his third triple-double of the series, scoring 32 points with 10 rebounds and 12 assists.
Jokic said the Nuggets shrugged off the idea of a "hostile environment" at the Footprint Center and played with "the same mindset that we are playing with at home -- just be aggressive, move them from the spots, make them make tough shots.
"And I think we did that," Jokic told ESPN.
The Nuggets silenced the Phoenix crowd as they dominated virtually every facet of the game on the way to an 81-51 halftime lead -- which sparked a smattering of boos from home spectators.
Jamal Murray, who was questionable to start because of illness, scored 26 points and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope added 21 for Denver, who out-scored the Suns 62-46 in the paint, out-rebounded them 41-29 and had 18 second-chance points to the Suns' seven.
Cameron Payne drilled seven of nine three-pointers on the way to 31 points for Phoenix. Kevin Durant added 23 and Devin Booker 12.
But with veteran point guard Chris Paul missing a fourth straight game with a groin injury and centre Deandre Ayton ruled out with a rib injury, the Suns endured another embarrassing exit after last year's elimination on their home floor by the Dallas Mavericks.
Durant wasn't around for that one, having arrived in February via a blockbuster trade with Brooklyn. And he didn't enjoy this year's version.
"It was a bad feeling. It was embarrassing. They came out and hit us in the mouth and we couldn't recover."
TATUM COMES THROUGH
In Philadelphia, Jayson Tatum scored 16 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter as the Celtics held off the 76ers 95-86 to level their Eastern Conference semifinal at three games apiece.
The star Boston forward had made just one of 14 attempts from the floor when he erupted with four three-pointers in the final period as the Celtics thwarted Philadelphia's comeback bid.
They'll host game seven on Sunday, trying to deny the Sixers a first trip to the conference finals since 2001 and stay on course for a return to the NBA Finals themselves.
Newly minted NBA MVP Joel Embiid had 26 points with 10 rebounds for Philadelphia. But former MVP James Harden scored just 13 on four-of-13 shooting.
Tatum, who averaged 30.1 points per game in the regular season, said he never lost confidence even as he struggled.
"I'm, humbly, one of the best basketball players in the world," Tatum told ESPN in an on-court interview of maintaining his confidence.
"Thankfully I've got some great team-mates that held it down... They tell me 'Keep taking great looks, it's going to fall.'"
Marcus Smart led the Celtics with 22 points. Jaylen Brown added 17 and Malcolm Brogdon scored 16 off the bench.
Even amid Tatum's troubles the Celtics raced to a 15-3 lead, Smart and Brogdon carrying the early load before the Sixers began to find their feet.
Philadelphia cut the deficit to three points before the Celtics pulled away again, pushing their advantage to 16 points twice in the second period.
But the Sixers clawed back, finally taking the lead on two free throws from Harden that put them up 64-62 with less than five minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Philadelphia led 73-71 going into the final frame and were up by two when Tatum made his first three-pointer of the game to put Boston ahead.
Tatum then drilled a step-back three-pointer over Tyrese Maxey and another pair from beyond the arc pushed the Celtics' lead to 11 with 37.6 seconds remaining.
"All that mattered was we won this game," said Tatum, who also had seven rebounds, six assists, a steal and two blocked shots. "It's game seven, it doesn't get any better than that."
Added Embiid: "Who doesn't love game seven?" -- AFP