Suns-Nuggets Series Preview: X-Factor, Key Matchups and Prediction

The Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets faced off three times in the regular season. But all of those games took place in the first 16 games of the season. Their last meeting was in mid January and a lot has changed since then.

Jamal Murray was healthy then. Michael Porter Jr. missed the first meeting and had just exited a COVID-19 quarantine before the final two. Aaron Gordon still had two more months in Orlando. Austin Rivers was in New York. The Nuggets were very different.

For the Suns, the personnel has remained the same. The same starting lineup the Suns opened with against the Nuggets on Jan. 1 in Denver they will use in Game 1 of their NBA second-round playoff series on Monday night in Phoenix: Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Deandre Ayton. That’s their biggest advantage — health and stability.

Murray is in the early stages of ACL rehab. Paul is managing a shoulder stinger that’s impacting his production. One is on the court, the other isn’t. One core is intact, the other is reforming without its second most important piece.

Phoenix won the lone game in Denver, then Denver won both in Phoenix, both in overtime on back-to-back nights. The results are irrelevant now. But on second watch of the tapes, there were some things I believe are sustainable into this series.  Some things we have to wait and see. But the biggest take away from the regular season matchup- how the Suns handled the soon to be MVP Nikola Jokic.

So let’s start there.

Biggest Suns question: Can they slow down the Joker?

When the two teams met early this season Jokic had yet stake his claim as league MVP, but he was on his way. In these matchups, Jokic was far from his best.

Jokic had 22 post touches in the Phoenix games, and there was a pattern forming.

If Jokic was going at Ayton in an isolated setting — without a double or a screener or an open cutter anywhere in the vicinity — it typically went well for the Suns. Ayton is one of the few guys in the league that Jokic doesn’t have the physical advantage over. Combine Ayton’s ability to defend other bigs one on one, Jokic struggled in said isolations.

In nine isolated Jokic post possessions against Ayton, he only scored twice and neither of the two were easy buckets. Jokic hit a jab-step 18-footer and a difficult spinning soft hook in traffic. The other seven consisted of four well-contested misses, two turnovers after Jokic failed to move Ayton and an impressive block on Jokic’s only trip near the rim.

That’s of course a huge bonus for the Suns. They have one of the more capable primary post defenders to stop Jokic. It limits one of the ways he can knife up your defense. But Jokic has a whole lot of tools in the box and Denver’s offense is built around finding your softest defensive spot and using Jokic to exploit it.

Jokic will find ways to pick apart both Ayton and the entire Suns defense. High pick and rolls/pops. Pulling Ayton out to the three point line. And of course using his jerky motion to draw fouls.

Speaking of fouls, let’s get to the next key to the series.

Suns X-factor: Ayton’s foul totals

In the final matchup with 1:38 left in the first overtime, Ayton fouled out. The Suns subbed in Frank Kaminsky. Jokic spent the rest of the first overtime and the second overtime barreling right through Kaminsky for 11 game-sealing points. He destroyed Kaminsky with an array of power moves through his chest, slippery spins and crafty foul-drawing.

Any minute that both Kaminsky and Jokic are on the floor is a red alert for the Suns. Maybe Phoenix could test Dario Saric — who looked like a deer in headlights early in the Lakers series before being pulled from the rotation — for a smaller, speedier look.

But Phoenix is better bigger and that’s the reality of its personnel. Williams must try to tie Ayton to just about every Jokic minute. That can only be done if Ayton avoids foul trouble. He’s had five fouls twice and six once in his seven career matchups with Jokic and Denver. That’s a series swing factor.

If Ayton gets in foul trouble, particularly early foul trouble, Jokic and the Nuggets are going to pick apart the Suns as if they’re playing the JV team.

Ayton needs to be out there.

Biggest Nuggets question: Who tries to contain Devin Booker and Chris Paul?

Booker sat the final of the three matchups, and it still went to double overtime. The regular season is different than playoff basketball. There’s often less energy, less focus, less schematic targeting. But sometimes, in a high-level matchup when the game is close down the stretch, everything shifts into a playoff feel and — this time of year, when we’re all searching for clues about a particular series — that pocket of the game is the most revelatory.

Part of the reason that game without Booker went to 2OT was because of Chris Paul.

From the 5-minute mark of the fourth quarter through double overtime, the Suns put Jokic in seven high screen situations against Paul, coming downhill at him. In all seven, a dropping Jokic ceded a clean midrange look for Paul, as the Denver announcers watched aghast, knowing Phoenix’s plan and knowing Denver didn’t really have a defensive counter.

The Nuggets have no real answer to the Chris Paul pick and roll, into a mid range shot if Jokic is the one dropping into coverage. Paul, bad shoulder and all is going to knock down wide open mid range shots so efficiently in that situation.

The Suns put Jokic in 27 total pick-and-rolls in the two games in Phoenix. It only led to 26 points. But many of the misses were clean looks because Jokic sagged too far back. Phoenix should be able to generate an open midrange jumper for Paul, Booker or Payne just about any time it desires.

With the way Booker and Payne have been shooting, the Nuggets can not play the same defense against the pick throughout this series. The Suns will thrive off of those looks.

Nuggets X-Factor: Michael Porter Jr.

Remember a year ago when Porter Jr. caused a seismic wave in the Nuggets locker room almost demanding he needs and deserves a bigger role on offense? Well he has got one now with the absence of Murray and if the Nuggets are going to win this series, he has to fill those shoes.

Porter made 44.5 percent of his 3s this season and 17 of 41 in the first round. Those numbers need to continue along with his relentless attack overall on the offensive end. He will have to match Booker shot for shot at some point in this series and the way he responds to the moment will dictate how this series pans out.

Role Players to Watch

Jae Crowder: The Suns forward went 8 of 37 from beyond the 3-point arc in the first five games of the Lakers series and then finished 6 of 8 from deep in the closeout games. When he hits his 3s, the offense goes to another level.

Cameron Payne: The guard had 75 bench points in the first round and none of the Lakers’ reserves had more than 38. The Suns probably don’t survive without the job he did in relief of a compromised Paul. If that shoulder injury lingers, Payne’s importance skyrockets.

Aaron Gordon: He’s not the playmaker and scorer he once was in Orlando but fits better as a versatile defender, spot-up shooter and slasher who can pass a bit. That’s his role in Denver. His defense on Booker is probably his most important assignment in this series.

Prediction: Nuggets in 7

I have gone back and forth on this series since the Suns went up 30 in Game 6 vs the Lakers. Booker and Paul are so impressive on the offensive end. Lethal when the others are clicking as well.

But there was an old saying in Las Vegas-role with the series best player and your chance to win is favorable. Well Jokic is the best player in the series and it is by a decent margin.

Booker is lethal, Paul is tactical. But only Jokic can dictate the pace of play for both teams. Jokic is going to be named league MVP for a reason. He dominates the game from each level on offense. He went shot for shot with Damian Lillard during “Dame-Time.” He will do the same against Booker if need be.

Nuggets in 7 as Jokic once again proves to be the best player in the NBA playoffs.

Leave a Reply