In the history of the NBA, in a seven-game series, the team that has gone down 0-2 has a record of 22-300. After two tough losses to start the series, how do the Denver Nuggets turn this around to earn back-to-back trips to the Western Conference Finals?
Evan Fiala (@eefiala): They have to get anyone besides Nikola Jokic involved on offense. Phoenix has done a tremendous job at disrupting the flow - the Nuggets have an offensive rating of 106.3 through the two games, well below their season average of 116.3 and rating of 122.9 they plastered against Portland. For reference, only the Milwaukee
Paper Tigers Bucks have a worse offense so far in the second round. MPJ has gone MIA and missing Jamal Murray and PJ Dozier is finally catching up. Hopefully being in front of a full Ball Arena crowd + Jokic receiving his MVP trophy will help jumpstart the team.
Tommy Knowlton (@TommyKnow303): They need to stop relying on the three-ball. If they can find a way to infiltrate the inside of Phoenix’s defense it will open up every shot on the floor. Defensively, Phoenix is doing what they did in round 1. They’re converging the paint daring shooters to make open shots. It’s working because nobody wants to get their shot blocked or stolen so they settle for outside shots. Maybe a little desperation will play in Denver's favor for Game 3.
Gage Bridgford (@GbridgfordNFL): They have to get everyone moving more. As Tommy mentioned, they were extremely reliant on outside shooting, and they just don’t have the shooters to play that way. There have been several instances in both games where the four players without the ball are standing around watching while the ball-handler is expected to carry the offense. It’s not exclusive to Jokic either. It’s happened with just about every player in the rotation. Rather than cutting or trying to move around the arc, they’re just standing and hoping their defender overhelps to give them an open outside shot. On defense, they have to get involved. Everyone needs to be selling out on every play.
With Barton back and playing well, how quickly does he start again?
Fiala: If Michael Malone’s post-game presser is any indication, it could be sooner than later. Malone specifically called out Barton as one of the only players who actually gave effort, and with both Facu and Austin Rivers struggling throwing Barton back into the fold might actually shake things up.
Knowlton: If Denver wins on Friday I think he could be back in the next couple of games, but if they lose and go down 3-0, I would not be surprised if we do not see him starting and possibly diminish his minutes further.
Bridgford: I’m going with Tommy here. If Denver is down 3-0, I don’t think he starts or plays much to finish out the series. However, I think we could see Barton play an increased number of minutes in Game 3 even if he doesn’t officially start. I also don’t think playing Barton in the closing minutes isn’t the worst move.
What has been the most surprising stat through two games?
Fiala: Monte Morris shooting just 2-17 for a grand total of five points. He was a key reason Denver was able to get past Portland in Games 5 and 6 of that series with his attack in the pick-and-roll, but now he just looks like a deer in the headlights and he’s missing everything. It’s not like he’s getting bad looks, either. Uncharacteristic performances from him, which hopefully he will turn around because without his contribution this series is over.
Knowlton: This is easy. Through two games, Denver has shot 83 threes compared to 26 free throw attempts. The Nuggets have never modeled their game after previous Rockets teams or this year's Jazz team that chucks up threes whenever they can, so why are they starting now? They need to focus on what makes them great and get back to their style of basketball.
Bridgford: For me, with the two options the other guys have chosen, I’m going with the fact that the Suns are shooting 50 percent on pull-up jumpers on 27 attempts per game. They’re at 45 percent from 3-point range thus far in the series. The Brooklyn Nets are the only other team in the second round that are shooting above 42.9 percent on those attempts. While some of the shots are open or wide-open looks, they’re just knocking down shots so easily, and Denver just can’t match it with their mark of 31.1 percent on pull-up jumpers.
Who needs to be the primary focal point for Denver to slow down on the Phoenix Suns for the rest of the series?
Fiala: Chris Paul. He’s putting forth an incredible performance and he’s literally picking apart Denver’s defense with ease. Jokic said that Paul is setting up his teammates with “practice shots” which aligns with the eye test. It seems like literally every shot the Suns generate is wide open, so it’s no surprise they are shooting 50.8% from the field and 43.1% from deep. Facu, usually a pest, seems to not have bothered CP3 one bit and neither has anyone else who has guarded him. If that doesn’t change, I’m not optimistic about Denver’s chances.
Knowlton: I feel like this is part of the reason why Denver is struggling. They primarily focus on one or two guys on defense and then you got someone wide open in the corner for three. It’s playoff basketball, and as Michael Malone pointed out you just have to stay in front of the man you're guarding. It’s a difficult but simple task. Denver cannot afford to over help or give too much attention to one player because that’s what they want you to do. They need to play connected, well-communicated defense and guard 1-5 no matter who it is.
Bridgford: I’m going with Mikal Bridges. He averaged 13.5 points per game during the regular season and 9.3 points per game in Round 1 against the Los Angeles Lakers. He’s currently averaging 19.5 points per game while shooting 54.2 percent from the floor. Tommy’s point of shutting down the entire team rather than one or two guys is correct, but, if we’re focusing on one outside of the aforementioned Paul, I’m going with Bridges. He’s the example of an “other” guy that wins you a series after the top two guys are held in check.
Predictions for the rest of the series? Is Denver able to battle back to become the 23rd team to climb out of an 0-2 hole, or do the Suns get this thing wrapped up to make it back to the Conference Finals for the first time since the 2009-10 season?
Fiala: It’s hard when you get blown out twice and the coach calls out effort both times (though that’s a pretty routine response for Malone). Though I do think the effort is there at the beginning of the games, the Nuggets have definitely folded in each third quarter once the Suns attack. If the Nuggets can actually hit some shots there is a great chance they get back into the series. Ultimately, I think the Nuggets can even it up or make it close but that they will fall. Phoenix has just been too good.
Knowlton: The two blowout losses are confidence blows, but I think Denver can regain it. I’m just not sure if that will translate when they head back to Phoenix. It’s a tough place to play and their fans are definitely focused on every possession. I just look at this Suns team and everything is working seamlessly for them with a Hall of Famer at the controls. A healthy Denver team beats the Suns, but unfortunately, this isn’t the year. Suns in 6.
Bridgford: I would like to be the guy to buck the trend and say that I’m going with Denver, but I agree with Evan and Tommy. Phoenix is the perfect storm of playing their best basketball at the right time while simultaneously being the healthiest team in the league. After looking like he was “done” in Round 1, Paul looks like he’s even healthier than he was before the injury. Abdel Nader is the only player on their injury report, and he was still only playing about 14 minutes per game in the regular season. Meanwhile, Denver’s still dealing with a litany of guard injuries, and they just don’t have the firepower to match Phoenix. I don’t think they get swept, but I think they don’t take the series to seven games. Phoenix in 6.