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Keeler: Nuggets looked “soft” and “scared” in Game 1. And if Chris Paul is healthy, that’s a bad sign.

The Nuggets pulled their punch. Aaron Gordon didn’t pull his.

“Soft, that’s a good way to (say) it,” the Nuggets’ forward offered during the postgame Zoom conference when asked to describe the wreckage that was Suns 122, 105 late Monday night.

“Scared is another way to (say) it.

“So you could choose between those two words. Soft and scared, that’s what it felt like we (were) playing like.”

Chris Paul got to them, because Chris Paul with two working shoulders gets to everybody eventually. Deandre Ayton got to them, because he’s Deandre Ayton. Devin Booker got to them, but it took a while.

Mikal Bridges got to them, largely because he was the poison they’d picked from the scouting report. Jae Crowder got to them, because he was flopping after every stinking 3-point attempt.

But the crowd got to them, and that was … well, weird.

The Nuggets had the same awed, pensive look in their eyes during second half of Game 1 of the Western Conference semis as the kids from Hickory High School in that scene from “Hoosiers” when the team walks into Indianapolis’ Hinkle Fieldhouse for the first time.

Maybe before Game 2, coach Michael Malone needs to hand Facu Campazzo a tape measure, then have him sit on Nikola Jokic’s shoulders so the pair can measure the distance from the rim to the floor at Phoenix Suns Arena, just to prove it’s the same as back home.

“One thing I learned from Stan Van Gundy,” said Malone, whose record in Game 1s since 2019 dipped to 2-5, “(is to) ‘Understand why you win and understand why you lose.’ … We beat Portland (over) four games (where) we were the aggressor, we were the more physical team. And that has to be the case.”

More times than not, they settled Monday. For jumpers. For treys off the break instead of crashes into the lane. For the clever instead of the direct. Denver outscored Phoenix in the paint, 52-48, but only made six trips to the free-throw line to the Suns’ 20.

It was a redux of Game 1 of the Portland series, only louder. Malone counted five and-1s allowed in a woeful opener against the Blazers. He said the Nuggets gave up eight of those bad boys Monday in the Valley, which is still one of the best ways to get run off an opposing floor.

Phoenix went on a 16-0 run midway through the third quarter to turn a 72-63 Denver cushion into a what-just-happened 79-72 deficit with 3:44 to go in the stanza. Joker’s legs seemed to leave him, the hosts closed the quarter on a 25-7 spurt, the locals went nuts and the fat lady in the Bol Bol replica jersey started warming up the vocal cords.

“We just got punched in the mouth (Monday),” noted forward JaMychal Green, one of the few Nuggets who punched back. “And we’ve got to do the punching next time.”

They’re better than this. How much better, and where that better comes from, are the pressing questions for Wednesday.

When nobody’s getting stops, you need somebody — Will Barton, Jamal Murray on one good leg, anybody — who can silence a hostile crowd until order is restored. Michael Porter Jr. apparently played the third quarter with a wonky back and was pretty much shut down by Malone as a precautionary measure. Austin Rivers and Monte Morris went a combined 3-for-17 from the floor and missed seven of eight from beyond the arc.

“Crowd didn’t have anything to do with it. Probably was fatigue,” Green said. “I feel like we were getting too down on ourselves when they were making that run and we never really recovered from that.”

They also wasted a nice night from Gordon (18 points, four boards, three steals), who made Booker work for it, helping to hold the Phoenix sharpshooter to one triple in the opening two-and-a-half quarters. He also showed no hesitation in backing Booker down in the paint whenever the two got matched up on the other end of the floor.

Dude wasn’t soft.

Dude wasn’t scared.

Dude needed help.

“They woke us up, though,” Green said. “We’ll be ready next game.”

More than that, they’ve gotta be willing. If the Nuggets keep losing 50-50 balls, if they’re getting elbowed and pushed out of the lane, every tilt is going to start looking like Game 1. And there won’t be a Game 5.

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