Jokic vs Ayton
I’ll begin with the most important matchup of the game with the two big men. I don't like to say Ayton outplayed Jokic in last year’s playoff matchup, but Jokic did not play to his standard. When you view some of his stats from those matchups it seems like he continued his MVP play when in fact he did struggle at times. He averaged 25 points, 13 rebounds, and 6 assists in that series, but he shot 47% from the field and 28% from three which is far from his pattern of greatness.
Following a regular-season matchup between the two last year, Jokic praised Ayton saying, “He’s amazing. Give the guy credit. He’s amazing. He plays really good defense. He stopped me five, six, seven, eight times. Give that guy credit.”
Out of all the defenders I thought could pose problems to Jokic, Ayton was not high on my list but after last year's sweep it begs the question, is Ayton Jokic’s kryptonite? I think Jokic has elevated himself into a status of he cannot be stopped, but I seldom see anybody guard Jokic like Ayton does. He often does not go for Jokic’s myriad of pump fakes, he has a strong lower body, and he plays complimentary team defense.
Jokic creates havoc offensively exploiting the opposition's aggressiveness. The reason why Ayton poses problems for Jokic is because he’s not the most aggressive or risky defender. He’s smart, strong, and disciplined which are three highly regarded traits for paint defenders. On top of that, the Suns play great team defense so if Jokic gets past Ayton there’s usually somebody right there for the double team.
Phoenix has grown into one of the tougher teams to play especially at home. Their crowd was absolutely rocking in last year’s playoffs, so Denver will need to be resilient following certain lapses in production. With Murray out, Jokic needs to be a scoring focal point first and a facilitator second in my opinion. He’s the most reliable and consistent option they have, and if he is producing he opens the entire game for everyone else.
Denver’s bench vs Phoenix’s
This might be what wins or loses the game for Denver. Phoenix was middle of the pack in bench scoring last year at 37 PPG but Denver was the 4th worst in the league at 32 PPG. This is a major concern for the Nuggets and in my opinion, the largest concern. Jokic cannot play 48 minutes a night, and he really shouldn't even have to play 35-38 minutes a night either. The Nuggets cannot afford to build a lead once Jokic is on the floor just to lose it when he gets off.
The Nuggets might not have the most talented and consistent bench depth, but they do have effective role players with high potential. For instance, Austin Rivers hasn't shown the most consistency throughout his career, but he is definitely a guy who can heat up for 20 points any given night. JaMychal Green is a rugged rebounder and defensive player but he can also pop off for four threes in a night. PJ Dozier is probably the best all-around substitute Denver has because he can be called upon to do just about everything you need out of a bench wing.
Yes, these are all best-case scenarios for each player which brings me to my point. At some point, guys have to start reaching their potential with regularity. Players like Bones, Howard, and Dozier get a pass because they are young, but Denver needs their veterans to be reliable and set a foundation for the young guys.
In this game, the Nuggets need their bench to be a momentum starter. If the starters obtain a lead and the bench loses it, it will be very difficult to overcome that adversity because of Phoenix’s home-court advantage and the fact they do not make a lot of mistakes. The Suns were 4th in the league in lowest turnovers per game and they were second best in free throw percentage, so if they build a lead they are excellent at maintaining it.
MPJ vs himself
Which MPJ will we see on opening night? I think at this point in his career, it’s safe to say scoring 18-20 points a night is not enough, especially with Murray out. MPJ has the talent right now to average 25+ every night and this year, he garners the most responsibility in his career. Vegas actually has him favored to win Most Improved Player of the Year, so he is being recognized nationally and expected to be an All-Star caliber player this year.
With the ability and skill he has, the only thing halting his success is himself. As for tonight’s game, Jae Crowder will once again cause him problems because of his physicality, but this is what the offseason was for. If you are in MPJ’s shoes, you see Phoenix on the schedule for game one and gameplan throughout the offseason on how to beat Crowder and players like him.
This will be such an interesting test for Michael. He faces a team he has struggled against, in their building, on opening night, while returning the majority of their players. In that playoffs series, MPJ averaged 15 points 5.5 rebounds while shooting an underwhelming 38% from the field and 37% from three. For most NBA players, that is not a bad stat line, but MPJ is not most NBA players. He has Hall of Fame potential.
Executing Hall of Fame potential requires Hall of Fame passion and dedication. I do not question his work ethic because I have heard he can be a gym rat, but now is the time to bear the fruits of that labor. For the most part, MPJ has struggled with the same issues since he arrived in the league, so opening night will be a great test to see if he improved them. Phoenix is a great opponent so we could see them present similar problems to MPJ, but great offense beats great defense. It’s time to see if MPJ greatness rivals the game’s elite.
Denver’s defense against their pick and roll
This is still a sore subject for me because I am still not over the Suns absolutely dismantling the Nuggets with one play. They ran it countless times and Denver looked fooled every possession. It looked like Denver was completely outcoached, but it comes down to the execution on the floor, and the players didn't play well enough to win. I talked about how great of a challenge this matchup is for MPJ, but what a test for Michael Malone as well.
I can say with great confidence, Michael Malone has been stewing all offseason on ways to conquer what happened in last year’s playoffs. He is just as great of a competitor as anyone on the floor, so I expect his game plan to look different than last year’s. The execution of that plan is up to the players, but if I have to watch Phoenix obliterate Denver over and over with the pick and roll, it will be difficult for me to have confidence in this team moving forward to the playoffs.
I think we Denver fans want to believe that Jokic is actually a good defender but the fact is, he is not, at least in this stage of his career. He has good aspects to his defensive game. He has great hands, he’s incredibly smart, and he is very strong. With that being said, he is not someone you ideally want protecting the paint and that is one of the reasons why Phoenix killed Denver in the pick and roll. They isolate Jokic and make him choose whether to show and hedge on the screen or drop the coverage. If he shows, Ayton glides to the rim, Paul gets it to him and now Ayton can either drive for a layup or pass it out for a three. If Jokic drops, Paul will exploit the mid-range game as well as anyone has ever done it.
As best they can, Denver cannot allow Phoenix to just isolate Jokic like that consistently. It has to be a team effort, wings and guards have to show or fake the help, great closeouts will be a must, and disciplined physicality will need to be there as well. Chris Paul will orchestrate the offense exceptionally as he usually does, but Denver needs to make sure they are in good position when that ball leaves his hands.