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If the Phoenix Suns want to keep their championship hopes alive, they need to put together another two-game win streak against the Denver Nuggets.
Before tackling the challenge of winning at Ball Arena, where the top-seeded Nuggets are 40-7 between the regular season and playoffs, the first step is bouncing back and protecting home court in Game 6.
The Suns took Denver’s Game 5 counterpunch, and now they’re on the brink of elimination. Focus and anxiousness to get back out there were common sentiments at Wednesday’s practice ahead of Thursday’s do-or-die matchup.
“I just know our group, I know the guys in the gym,” coach Monty Williams said. “They’re looking forward to tomorrow’s game, and that’s why I enjoy the group that we’ve had here, because we really relish opportunities to bounce back. This is another opportunity for us to not just bounce back, but to do it in front of our home crowd.”
Much like his locker room message after Game 2, Devin Booker and the Suns are embracing the challenge of trying to win in Phoenix and put pressure back on Denver.
“You gotta be excited for these opportunities, you have to be excited for this chance to do some special versus a really good team,” Booker said. “We have all the answers to the test now, so all the game plan stuff comes out the window. It’s just a dogfight, and you have to be ready to go.”
“It’s just about going out there and playing every possession like it’s your last, really,” Kevin Durant added. “We’ve seen this team for five games now, and they’ve seen us, so it’s all about who wants it more.”
The question is, what’s the winning formula for Phoenix as the series shifts back to the Valley? Looking back to Games 3 and 4, while bearing in mind what went wrong in Game 5, provides five keys to this elimination Game 6.
1. Suns need a balanced Devin Booker supernova
The rest of the league is apparently just now learning what Phoenix Suns fans have known for years: Devin Booker is built for this stage.
“It’s unreal, man,” Terrence Ross said. “Every night, he’s either going for 30 or 40, so to watch that, it’s special, man. It’s not too many guys that can produce at that high level and score the way he does.”
Through the first 10 games, Book has arguably been the best player in the entire 2023 NBA Playoffs. Even after finally coming back down to earth in Game 5, the face of the Suns franchise is the postseason scoring leader, averaging 35.9 points, 7.1 assists and 5.2 rebounds per game on .601/.517/.873 shooting splits. Until Game 5, he was in his own tier:
As a scorer, Book’s playoff run has been historic. He tied Wilt Chamberlain for the eighth-most points scored through the first 10 games of any NBA postseason, trailing only Wilt, Michael Jordan, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West. No one had ever scored more than 300 points on 70 percent true shooting through the first nine games of a postseason, and no player had ever had a nine-game stretch quite like Book’s start to the playoffs.
Putting himself in prestigious company with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or MJ and LeBron James, is difficult. So is shooting an unprecedented 79 percent over a two-game span. But the degree of difficulty on Booker’s shot-making has made his production even more mind-boggling.
According to NBA.com, Booker has shot 62.7 percent on “tightly” guarded shots, where the nearest defender is 2-4 feet away. That’s the second-highest conversion rate among all players with at least 30 such field goal attempts in the playoffs, trailing only LeBron James. Book has taken a staggering 126 such attempts, trailing only Kevin Durant’s league-leading 131 attempts. Booker, however, is shooting 17.7 percent better on those looks.
If math isn’t your thing, the film corroborates what the numbers say: Devin Booker is getting BUCKETS.
“I’m just trying to win,” Booker said. “I always say, and it’s something that I’ll tell KD, like, throw that efficiency shit out the window. I don’t care about that. Just keep going.”
The arrival of Durant has made life easier for Booker, who says he feels he’s supposed to make a lot of the shots he takes and is just taking what the defense gives him.
According to NBA.com, Booker has drilled 58.7 percent of his “open” looks (nearest defender 4-6 feet away), which is the highest percentage among all players this postseason with at least 20 attempts. He’s also knocked down 60 percent of his “wide open” shots (nearest defender 6+ feet away), the third-highest percentage among all players with at least 20 attempts.
“I don’t usually get open shots, so this is a new thing with having KD’s gravity on the floor,” Booker said.
Of course, Booker is more than just a scorer. He’s excelled as a playmaker too, which has been crucial with Chris Paul out since Game 2. Booker jumped from 14 assists over the first two games to 21 in Games 3-4, and his facilitation has once again placed him in rarified air alongside His Airness:
The Suns offense plays on a string. When bigs like Deandre Ayton and Jock Landale roll hard off screens, their gravity allows ball-handlers like Booker, Durant and CP3 to attack openings, get to their spots or find shooters on the back side.
Because of Booker’s scorching-hot postseason run, the Nuggets have had to mix up their coverages and show him extra bodies.
“We have to give Devin Booker different looks,” coach Michael Malone said. “It can’t be the same thing for 48 minutes, he’s a great player. This guy had two 40-point games in the NBA Finals.”
For the first four games of the series, the results were tough for Denver. That was especially the case in Phoenix’s two wins, where Booker routinely picked apart the Nuggets’ double-teams, stretching their traps and almost weaponizing them by bending the defense toward him before firing off a pass to the open roller or weak-side shooter:
“His ability to see the double-team, stretch it, because the stretching makes for a longer rotation, and then finding guys on the backside with on-time, on-target passes,” Williams explained. “And then when there was opportunities for him to go, he went.”
That balance between attacking and making plays for others wasn’t as abundant in Game 5. Booker scored 28 points but only shot 8-for-19 and finished with 4 assists.
Part of his struggles could be chalked up to a sore foot after the awkward fall he took near the end of the first quarter. Part of it amounted to the Nuggets’ increased use of full-court pressure and attempts to confine Booker to the sidelines. And part of it stemmed from the Suns’ other guys — outside of Terrence Ross — being unable to make shots and keep the defense honest.
“They ran two or three guys at Kevin and Book tonight, and so that can be hard,” Williams said. “That means other guys gotta be able to knock down shots.”
Making things more difficult? A somewhat hobbled Booker missing the shots he’s been automatic on all series. Those sky-high percentages always felt unsustainable, but as much as Denver’s defense ratcheted up the intensity and physicality, Book also experienced some regression to the mean on fairly makable looks:
Williams said at practice Booker’s foot seemed fine, and he wasn’t listed on the injury report for Game 6. As unfair as it is to require otherworldly offensive creation on a nightly basis, that’s where the Suns are right now. They’ll need him to push through this minor injury and get back to his all-time heater to force a Game 7.
2. Suns are due for a Kevin Durant takeover
Never was that need more glaring than listening to Malone’s pregame comments about guarding Booker.
“If we’re gonna go down, I still want somebody other than Devin Booker to beat us, because that guy is lethal,” he said.
That is a wild statement about a team that has Kevin-Freaking-Durant on it, but vintage Kevin-Freaking-Durant has been in short supply lately. That’s not to say he’s been bad; Durant is still averaging a 31-11-5 stat line for the series, and his Game 4 performance felt like a potential breakthrough moment.
But in Game 5, KD came crashing back down to earth. His first game in Denver was plagued by 7 turnovers. His second was marred by 10-of-27 shooting. And his third looked better than it was on the box score, with 10-of-24 shooting, 5 turnovers and 4 fouls hiding a 1-for-8 start that saw him pressing early once again.
“Well, we got down so early, I understand what he was thinking,” Williams said. “He probably felt like we needed a boost. So we just have to figure that out.”
Durant has admitted he and Booker are still learning to play off of each other, and he owned up to some of his shot selection in Game 5 as a product of trying too hard to help Phoenix climb out of an early hole.
“Obviously I wanna make every shot I take, that’s just my mentality,” he said. “But I definitely could’ve took a couple better ones there in the first quarter.”
Durant may be shooting 45.8 percent from the series, but that figure is well below his usual efficiency. He’s dipped beneath 42 percent shooting in three of the five games, and he’s shooting just 22.2 percent from 3. To this point, getting to the free-throw line 8.8 times per game and weaponizing Denver’s physical defense has been his saving grace.
“I’ve been dealing with that my whole life on the court, and sometimes they do a good job,” Durant said. “Sometimes I gotta rethink my approach, but it’s all part of the process of it.”
Armed with home-court advantage and the “role players play better at home” adage, the Suns may not need a virtuoso Durant performance in Game 6. But getting back to form from Games 3-4 certainly wouldn’t hurt, and depending on what Phoenix gets out of a hobbled Booker, this is KD’s best opportunity to go full Slim Reaper.
The key will be attacking as the first pass away from Booker on traps and capitalizing better than he did in Games 2, 3 and 5. Looking for his shot and being assertive is one thing, but Phoenix can’t allow another slow start to spiral.
After taking only 19 shots in Game 4 and making 12 of them, Durant admitted that number was more indicative of being in the flow rather than forcing it. The Suns need that version of Durant to reappear to send this series back to Denver.
3. Playing with more pace
Pushing the tempo in Denver doesn’t feel advisable, but in Phoenix, the Suns have had great success attacking in transition and semi-transition. Every stop should be an attempt to exploit the Nuggets before they can set their defense.
“If we can’t eliminate the transition, we’re not gonna win this series,” Malone said ahead of Game 5. “Point blank.”
Malone isn’t wrong citing transition defense as a major swing factor. In their two wins, the Suns have outscored Denver 43-21 in fast break points. In their three losses, the margin has been much closer, with Phoenix barely up, 59-58.
“I feel like it’s been very beneficial for us, kind of just working them in transition instead of coming down trying to play off half-court offense all the time,” Cam Payne said. “I think we’re a lot better when we’re moving in transition and running fast.”
With Chris Paul sidelined, the Point God has encouraged Payne to “run your team” in the starting role. Payne has yet to make a significant impact on the stat sheet, but his up-tempo style helped the Suns post some truly gaudy transition numbers in Game 4:
“It was good to get ’em back, ’cause they had us like that in Denver with the altitude and stuff like that,” Torrey Craig said. “Cam Payne had a lot to do with that. He’s coming out early, getting the ball down the court fast. He’s just getting the ball down the court fast and we was able to run through sets faster and play with more pace and get the ball side to side. Even when Book and Kev try to iso, it’s not as easy to load up because we’re playing so fast and playing so spaced.”
Booker has been the biggest opportunist when it comes to pushing the pace. He’s scored a league-leading 106 fast break points in these playoffs, with the next-closest player being his teammate, Durant…who is 40 points behind him. Booker is shooting 67.9 percent on the break, and the Suns lead the league in points per possession (1.40) in transition.
“I always say our best offense is when we’re getting stops and getting out in transition,” Booker said. “You have cross-matches and are able to play fast, but once we slow it down, it allows defenses to do their game plan, and even if we make a shot, it’s usually a tough one.”
The Suns have a great half-court offense and two superstar iso scorers, but getting stops and attacking Denver before they can set their defense will be a key factor for Phoenix.
4. Getting something out of the role players at home
Landry Shamet’s 19-point explosion in Game 4 was living proof that role players play better at home. The Suns will need some more of that same magic in Game 6 — especially after Bruce Brown Jr. nearly outscored Phoenix’s second unit by himself last game.
Williams’ decision to give minutes to Terrence Ross and T.J. Warren probably came a game or two late, but it’s paid dividends. In two wins, the Suns’ bench has outscored Denver’s 62-31 while posting a +15 total point differential. In three losses, their second unit has been outscored 70-54 while posting a -10.
That shift from defense to offense has been pivotal in making the Nuggets pay for all the blitzes they’re sending at Booker and Durant.
“The attention that they’re getting, we needed Landry and Terrence and T.J. on the back side to knock down shots,” Williams said. “If they double-team, you have to be able to have shot-makers on the back side, willing shot-takers, and then guys who can put pressure on the rim.”
Ross, who chipped in 9 points on 3-of-4 shooting in Game 5, said the trust Booker and Durant have to make the right pass out of those doubles inspires confidence in those weak-side shooters.
“They’re putting so much pressure and so much attention towards Book and KD that, when they do have the ball and they try to do their thing, a lot of guys kind of help in,” Ross said. “So I know that if you make a couple shots early, it keeps the defense honest, it gives them more space to create and work, and we thrive off that.”
Heading into the latter part of the series, and with minutes dwindling for Josh Okogie and Torrey Craig, Ross feels like the microwave bench scorer Phoenix really needs to heat up in a hurry for Game 6.
“He’s liable to knock four or five down straight, and I feel like that’s coming,” Booker said. “He’s that guy on the backside a lot where his low man’s trying to help on Deandre and it’s leaving him naked, wide open. So I’m gonna keep throwing it to him every time.”
The bench has been a revolving door for months now. Williams’ rotations have made it difficult to establish a pecking order, but part of the problem is his bench is comprised of either offense-heavy or defense-heavy options, with very few bridging the gap outside of Shamet.
“His defense allows for us to not have to put Book on the main guy every possession,” Williams said. “And then on the other end, the execution versus double teams and him taking and making shots speaks to his mentality, the work he puts in.”
Outside of Ross and Shamet, T.J. Warren provides a big body who can create his own shot while still holding his own defensively. Jock Landale seized the backup center thanks to his energy, offensive rebounding and ability to punish Denver’s small-ball lineups.
If Ayton misses Game 6 with a rib contusion or fails to be effective yet again, Landale could be in line for another bump in playing time.
“He was just active, give him credit,” Malone said. “I think he’s come in this series and impacted in a positive way — activity, offensive rebounding, physicality, aggression. So obviously, I think he earned Monty’s trust and minutes in that game, and if he continues to play like that, I’m sure he’ll get more and more minutes.”
The switch from defense to offense has opened up that end of the floor. Now it’s a matter of the Suns’ bench unit stepping up at home to make life easier for Book and KD.
“Those guys are gonna draw a lot of attention,” Shamet said. “Book’s making unbelievable reads right now, seeing the defense and making the right play all the time. So it’s just a matter of us on the back end of that play trying to convert.”
5. Let Nikola Jokic be a scorer
It sounds crazy, but Nikola Jokic’s 53-point performance in Game 4 may be closest thing to a blueprint for guarding him.
“I think if you look at the game and you look at how he scored, nothing was easy,” Williams said. “He’s a two-time MVP, he can score every way imaginable. But I still think our guys made it tough on him. DA was physical, Jock was physical, and that’s all you can do. And there are times where you have to trust a contested hand and hope he misses.”
That strategy was on full display in Game 4. Jokic made some incredibly difficult shots, but the Suns resisted the urge to let those baskets fluster them.
“I hate when he makes shots, ’cause he’s so unorthodox,” Durant said with a laugh. “It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a miss,’ and then it goes straight in. He’s incredible.”
Jokic has had plenty of those types of shots in the series, but the Suns stuck with it, forcing him into a few crucial late-game misses that looked like a product of the wear-down effect.
As the end of the clip shows, playing off Jokic and covering all the off-ball cutters will turn him into a more willing jump shooter. It’s in those situations where Ayton needs to do a better job of contesting without inviting a drive.
“The times when we got off his body, he had slow release 3s, it was just like he was in the gym by himself,” Williams said. “But I thought other than that, he made tough shots against really good defense.”
If Phoenix can turn him primarily into a scorer, limit his playmaking and wear him down, they stand a better chance of making sure the other guys don’t get involved.
Jamal Murray, whose scoring has felt contradictory to the Nuggets’ offensive flow outside of Game 1, finished with 28 points in that Game 4 spectacle, but it took him 25 shots to get there. Where the Suns really get into trouble is when guys like Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr. or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope get going.
Defending Jokic is a mystery no team will solve, but if the Suns can limit the impact of Denver’s role players and isolate Murray into one-on-one basketball off on his own tangent, Phoenix has a better chance of limiting Jokic’s damage.
“It’s tough, man,” Booker said. “He can make sure everybody’s involved at the same time, so you don’t wanna over-help, ’cause he’ll spray it out and they’re shooting 3s on the backside. But if you leave the matchup there one-on-one, he’s gonna make you pay for it. We just always talk about making it hard, making it tough, trying to wear him down.”
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