After a gentleman’s sweep of the shorthanded LA Clippers in the first round of the 2023 NBA Playoffs, the Phoenix Suns are in a familiar position: facing the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals. Unlike that 2021 sweep, however, the Suns will be starting this series off on the road, which is a first for this team in the Devin Booker era.
The Nuggets had an impressive season, winning 53 games and the No. 1 seed in the West while leading the league in field-goal percentage, ranking fourth in 3-point percentage and boasting the NBA’s fifth-best offense. Even after going through a bit of a slump over the last few months, the Nuggets breezed through their first-round opponent in five games and are led by a two-time MVP who made his case for a third this year.
Compared to a Suns squad that’s only played 13 games with Kevin Durant, Denver has continuity and home-court advantage on their side. The question is, does this healthier version of the Nuggets with Jamal Murray match up better against Phoenix and the Slim Reaper?
With Game 1 set to tip off Saturday in the Mile High City, it’s time to take a look at the Suns’ second-round opponent to pinpoint their strengths and weaknesses. Here are five keys to Phoenix’s upcoming rematch with the Nuggets.
1. Deandre Ayton making Nikola Jokic work
Led by Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets get a majority of their points on the interior. They take fewer 3s than the Suns, ranking 25th in attempts this season, but unlike Phoenix’s midrange-heavy approach, Denver makes its hay in the paint. The Nuggets ranked fourth in points in the paint (55.0 per game), with Jokic himself averaging the fifth-most points in the paint among all players.
The Suns have been solid in that category, holding opponents to the eighth-fewest points in the paint this season, but Jokic represents a singular challenge for one Deandre Ayton — a guy coming off a less-than-stellar opening round, but one who routinely elevates his game against the Joker.
In the 2021 conference semis, Ayton held Jokic to 25.0 points, 13.3 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game on 47.7 percent shooting — fantastic numbers, to be sure, but a far cry from the 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game on 56.6 percent shooting Jokic posted during that season.
Everyone will always remember the moment Jokic lost his cool in Game 4 and got himself ejected:
But no one should forget it was DA’s verticality and physicality that pushed him to his breaking point. After four straight games of Ayton effectively limiting Jokic’s drives, contesting his jumpers and containing his playmaking, Denver’s superstar cracked.
The Suns desperately need that version of “Dominayton” to make a reappearance against a player he respects as much as anyone in this league.
“Yeah, it’s gonna be fun,” Ayton said of the Nuggets matchup after the Suns’ Game 5 win. “They’re the best, and Suns basketball, we try to beat the best. That’s what we’re looking forward to, and we know it’s not gonna be easy, but it’ll be a great series where mano plays against a mano.”
No one can stop an MVP-caliber big like Jokic, but when he’s engaged, Ayton has the right combination of size, length, foot speed and strength to stick with the Joker off the dribble. Over the last few years, he’s had as much success in limiting Jokic’s impact as anyone — or at least, that was the case during the 2020-21 season.
According to NBA.com, Ayton’s numbers when directly guarding Jokic in seven games that year (including the four-game playoff sweep) were much more favorable compared to the three times they’ve met in the regular season since:
- Jokic against Ayton 2020-21: 8.7 MPG, 12.6 PPG, 4.6 APG, 41.4 FG%, 27.8 3P%
- Jokic against Ayton since: 9.7 MPG, 16.0 PPG, 5.7 APG, 63.6 FG%, 22.2 3P%
Watching back the tape from that 2021 playoff showdown, DA got Jokic to settle for jumpers quite a bit. A lot of these are shots he’s capable of making, however. While Ayton showed a fundamentally good closeout on many of these, he’ll need to close that distance and seriously challenge those shots with more urgency if they start falling this time around:
Matchup data should be taken with a grain of salt, but Jokic’s game has continued to evolve. He’s the type of cerebral force you can’t stop, but can only hope to contain.
“It’s hard to stop dudes like that who do everything,” Ayton said. “Just seeing how he do it, I can’t stop him, but I’ll definitely be in his way. I definitely have that mental stamina to keep going. Even though he might have a triple-double with 30 points, I’m gonna keep going to try and win the game. But at the same time, that’s what that man do, man. That’s the MVP, that’s what he do.”
The brunt of preventing an MVP from doing what he does will fall on Ayton’s shoulders. He struggled keeping Ivica Zubac and Mason Plumlee off the offensive glass, but DA has always fallen prey to those types of matchups while thriving against the league’s elite bigs.
If the Suns can get away with putting DA on the Joker and playing him one-on-one, they’ll avoid having to constantly blitz, which puts a defense in rotations against a superstar whose playmaking thrives in those environments.
“Joker, he’s an amazing talent, man,” said Torrey Craig, Jokic’s former teammate. “He’s like one-of-one. I’ve never seen a guy that invites the double-team just to make the right plays and break defenses down. So he’s unique. He has a unique skill-set, and he’s a tough guy to plan for because he don’t really have a weakness. He knows how to manipulate the game on all levels.”
2. Suns getting Kevin Durant more involved
It’s a strange phenomenon to feel like a guy who averaged 28.4 points and 6.2 assists per game on 51.8 percent shooting in the first round wasn’t involved enough, but that’s pretty much where we are with Kevin Durant.
Even as he and Booker made history, it was hard to avoid noticing the ample room for improvement with how the Suns deployed the Slim Reaper.
The 17.0 field-goal attempts he averaged in the first round would be the lowest number he’s taken in any of his 12 postseasons, and he’s only averaged fewer shot attempts during one regular season in his entire 15-year career — that first season with the Golden State Warriors.
This is the most talent Durant’s had around him since those Warriors teams, but so far, figuring out how to unleash him is an ongoing adjustment.
“I do still feel like it’s a work in progress,” coach Monty Williams said. “We just gotta figure out how teams are guarding him and then when he does pop free, we gotta be able to get him the ball in the shot pocket or throw it to him where he can activate and take off.”
In Phoenix’s defense, they’ve only had 13 games together, and even with a malleable superstar like KD, these things take time. To his credit, Durant has been patient with this process, despite occasionally showing frustration on the court. His willingness to share the ball, make the right play and let the offense breathe are all pillars of this Suns team.
“I had been with Kevin enough to know that he plays a pure, humble style of basketball,” Williams said. “If a guy’s open, he’s gonna make the pass. He also knows that the best offense is him shooting the ball, but I don’t think he ever hesitates to throw the ball to an open man.”
The struggle to use Durant in more than a Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, floor-spacing role popped up throughout the Suns’ first-round series, but it was never more apparent than the last few minutes of Game 5. Over a two-minute and 50-second span in the fourth quarter, the Clippers went on a 15-2 run, chopping Phoenix’s 15-point lead down to two.
During that stretch, Durant barely touched the ball, operating as a floor-spacer on the wing or in the corner away from the action:
“I thought we missed him in transition a couple of times, but for the most part, they denied him,” Williams said. “If you watch the film, you’ll see one guy, he’s in the corner, and the guy’s denying him. We tried to put him in some screening actions, and they topped him, and then they put two guys around him. And that’s why we put Landry [Shamet] in the game, hoping that would free him up a little bit. But I think I have to figure out ways to get him in space so he can catch the ball freely and be able to go.”
With all due respect, the Suns shouldn’t be looking to Landry Shamet — or anybody, for that matter — to free up Kevin-Freaking-Durant. This franchise traded away two promising young wings and a bevy of draft picks for one of the purest scorers of all time. Sometimes it’s okay to get that dude the ball and get out of the way.
“We all understand when that move happened, when he came here, that the landscape in the West changed rather quickly,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “A player of Kevin’s talents, what he’s done in this league, a world champion, just a great player, when you put him with arguably one of the greatest point guards to ever play in Chris Paul; one of the better 2-guards in the league in Devin Booker; a very effective big man in Deandre Ayton; a role player like Josh Okogie, I think he’s playing great for them; they just become that much harder to guard.”
There’s no denying that KD has made everyone’s life easier. That’s especially true for Devin Booker, who has transformed into a legitimate two-way superstar since his arrival.
“I just feel bad for Kev sometimes, because he’s an expensive decoy out there,” Williams joked. “He’s standing at the 28-foot hash and the defender is right in his face, and that gives Book a number of opportunities to attack the basket.”
“This man right here causes a lot of gravity,” Booker agreed. “I hate to have him in the corner sometimes, but they will not leave him, and it opens up the rest of the court for everybody else.”
The Clippers did an effective job doubling Durant, playing physical with him all series and throwing different looks at him every time down the floor. Tyronn Lue is one of the best in the business in that respect, and with all due respect to Malone and the Nuggets’ 15th-ranked defense, they may not have the strategic acumen or personnel to replicate what LA did.
If that winds up being the case, this would be a great series for the Suns to iron out some of those kinks and keep KD involved as more than just a floor-spacer.
“Kevin Durant’s a hell of a player,” Malone said. “And Monty, I’m sure, will do a great job of finding ways to incorporate him and get him comfortable and up to speed very, very quickly.”
3. Let Chris Paul eat pigeon
Let’s brainstorm matchups for a second. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope makes the most sense on Devin Booker. Aaron Gordon is the Nuggets’ other reliable defender, so he may be tasked with the Durant assignment. That leaves Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Nikola Jokic — all mediocre-to-poor defenders — to cover some combination of Chris Paul, Deandre Ayton and whichever one of Josh Okogie or Torrey Craig starts.
Jokic guarding Ayton would typically be the move, but the Suns will look to run him through constant pick-and-roll actions like the Minnesota Timberwolves did. Maybe the Nuggets try hiding Jokic on Okogie/Craig in the corner to avoid that issue, but both of them are capable screeners, and the Suns would find ways to expose Jokic’s brontosaurus-like footwork on defense.
All this is ignoring that if Jokic is stuck in the corner, Murray can no longer hide on Okogie/Craig, leaving him to defend a Point God who will run him through pick-and-roll actions.
The linchpin of whether this Nuggets defense can survive against Phoenix, as ever, is MPJ. That stood for Michael Pigeon Jr. the last time these teams met in the postseason, but he’s improved on the defensive end. He uses his length effectively as a low man, makes the right rotations more consistently and puts his wingspan to good use on the perimeter.
With that being said, if the Suns can involve Denver’s top three players in constant actions on that end of the floor, they may be able to expose the cracks in their defense.
Everyone knows the Suns are a midrange-centric team, but Jokic’s best option may be drop coverage in the pick-and-roll. Depending on who the Nuggets put on Chris Paul, this could be a series where it makes sense to put the ball in his hands, rather than stick him in the corner and allow opponents to virtually ignore him as long as they can close out fast enough on his catch-and-shoot looks.
If the Suns put Murray on CP3, he should be involving him in actions on the ball, especially with Jokic’s man as the screener. If Jokic isn’t guarding DA, Paul can engineer opportunities to allow Ayton to capitalize on his size advantage against Porter or whoever gets stuck on him in the paint. And if the Nuggets try to use Porter’s length to bother CP3 or — Lord help him! — challenge KD’s reach like the Clippers did with Nicolas Batum, the Suns need to test his defensive progress every step of the way.
Denver looked just fine defensively against the Timberwolves. This Suns team — with Paul, Durant and Booker all capable to scoping out mismatches in the pick-and-roll — is another beast entirely. It’s on Williams and his high-IQ floor generals to locate and hunt the pigeons in the Nuggets’ starting five.
4. Stick Josh Okogie on Suns killer Jamal Murray
Williams justified his surprising decision to insert Craig into the starting lineup by citing the size he brought to the table against Kawhi Leonard. Craig shot well enough to keep the starting job even after Leonard went down, but Okogie earned as many minutes as Craig in Game 4 and more minutes than him in Game 5.
Heading into a new series, it’s time for Okogie’s point-of-attack defense to shine. It’s especially pertinent against Jamal Murray, who’s averaged 25.2 points and 5.5 assists on .502/.485/.833 shooting splits in his last 13 meetings with the Suns.
“His ability to stay in front of the ball is something that we think is huge for us, but not just staying in front, he has the strength to stay in front and hold his ground,” Williams said of Okogie. “That allows for us to not have to help. Sometimes you can stay in front of the ball and get bumped off, and then everybody has to come over, or the big has to come over and help. But then his ability to contest shots. Like, not many guys his size can contest jump shots the way that he does, and then he can switch on smaller guys, bigger guys.”
The Nuggets didn’t have Murray the last time they faced Phoenix in the playoffs. He was great in Denver’s first-round series, putting up 27.2 points and 6.4 assists per game on .471/.429/.909 shooting. Booker’s defense has drastically improved, but neither he nor a 37-year-old Chris Paul should have to expend their energy on a matchup with this Suns killer.
It’s time to put Okogie back in the starting lineup that played eight regular-season games together with a healthy Kevin Durant. Okogie has certainly helped fill some of the Mikal Bridges void, using strength instead of length to hound opposing ball-handlers.
“He’s a guy that guards multiple spots, he’s able to put his hands on guys without fouling, he can block shots,” Williams said. “The ability to guard the ball full-court is something that Josh has been able to do, and it’s helped us. I think guys read off of his ability to guard, and sometimes we allow him to stay with his matchup because he’s in that guy’s pocket. And that’s what Mikal used to do at times.”
The Suns have put Okogie on everyone from Giannis Antetokounmpo and Zion Williamson to Stephen Curry and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The challenge of learning vastly different players’ tendencies is one Okogie relishes.
“I’ve been doing this since I got to the league, it’s nothing new to me,” he said. “I love the challenge. I love the opportunity to go out there and guard Steph Curry, go out there and guard Giannis, go out there and guard [Paolo] Banchero and Franz Wagner, all those guys.”
Okogie’s shooting can be a liability at times, but if his slashing and the occasional corner 3 can keep Denver’s defense honest, his ability to make life difficult for Murray could be a legitimate game-changer.
5. Battle of the underwhelming benches
Depth won’t ever be mentioned as an advantage for either of these teams. The Nuggets’ second unit is basically Bruce Brown, Jeff Green and rookie Christian Braun, while Phoenix’s bench is a recovering Cam Payne, Torrey Craig/Josh Okogie, Bismack Biyombo and either Landry Shamet or Damion Lee.
The question is which bench will be able to come in and avoid making mistakes.
So far in the playoffs, the Suns bench has averaged a league-worst 14.4 points per game in an NBA-low 10.9 minutes per game. The Nuggets bench, meanwhile, is averaging 20.6 points (11th among playoff teams) in 13.6 minutes per game (13th). The difference, however, is Denver’s bench boasts a playoff-best point differential of +4.3. The Suns, meanwhile, are ninth at -1.1.
This is a complete role reversal for both teams compared to the regular season. The Nuggets ranked 19th in bench scoring and 29th in point differential for their second unit (-2.9) during the regular season. The Suns, on the other hand, ranked 11th in bench scoring and fourth in point differential (+1.4). The success of Denver’s second unit so far in these playoffs has been predicated on going small with Green or Aaron Gordon at the 5, and Phoenix shouldn’t hesitate to respond in kind with Durant at center.
Williams’ rotations have come under fire, mainly for his continued faith in Shamet. But if Okogie gets the starting nod, Payne returns healthy enough to absorb Shamet’s minutes, and Craig continues to impact the game with energy off the bench, that should be more than enough to give Phoenix’s starting five a breather. And if the Suns need scoring, they’ve always got options like Damion Lee, Terrence Ross, T.J. Warren or Jock Landale waiting for their names to be called.
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