The Denver Nuggets will meet the Phoenix Suns for the 4th time this season on Monday. Denver owns a 2-1 record against them, but every game was decided by eight points or less including one overtime and double-overtime game.
Their star and slam dunk Hall of Famer Chris Paul is nursing a shoulder injury, but Devin Booker is this team’s best offensive talent. He averaged 29.7 PPG last series and shot 43% from three. Compared to Portland, this team has more balance on the offensive end. Their five starters all average double-digit points and can shoot from the perimeter. They also have an up-and-coming 22-year-old center Deandre Ayton who took care of the Laker bigs averaging 16 PPG and 11 rebounds.
This series looks to be another high-scoring affair. Phoenix’s roster is of a similar fabric as Denver’s. They have two star players surrounded by 5-7 really effective role players. We expect the stars to shine every game, but the role players for both teams will be the deciding factor in the series. Denver hopes to restore Barton and Dozier into the lineup at some point, but their status remains unclear. Barton is closer to a return than PJ, and just having one of them back into the lineup is a huge roster boost.
The Suns flew under some NBA radars because they haven’t proven it in the postseason prior to this year, but they are a Finals contender. They may not have what it takes yet to win the championship, but they showed last series they have the ability to beat anyone in the West. So with that being said, let’s take a deeper dive into Phoenix’s scheme and X-factors for this series.
This is a very talented offensive and defensive squad. Again, their starters all average double digits, and their bench can score as well. On the defense end, they have 4-5 really solid defensive players. Paul, Bridges, Craig, Crowder, and Ayton are disruptors to opposing offenses. Bridges and Crowder will be interesting to watch this series because their likely matchup will be Michael Porter Jr. Crowder is a very physical presence which seems to give MPJ fits, while Bridges is the more quicker and more finesse defender.
They are a very balanced squad. During the regular season, they were top 7 in points per game and defensive rating. Chris Paul is arguably a top 2 or 3 floor general of all time, so they do not turn the ball over often. The key to Denver’s defensive game could be switching the screens. They’re a fast-paced offense in the half-court, and by that I mean they play hot potato at times. They like to move the ball, make quick decisions, cut, and find open three-point shooters. The two people that can kill you on the switch are Booker and Paul. At this age, Paul isn’t as much of a pure scorer, but his midrange game is as deadly as it gets, and he always seems to make the right decision of the screen and roll. Booker, on the other hand, is a pure scorer. He was tutored by Kobe Bryant so he comes from that same ilk where he can score from anywhere on the court in any position.
This is how they like to run their offense with incredible ball movement. It starts with one of the smartest players in the league Chris Paul. He gets the screen from Kaminsky, but instead of using it, he shoots a pass to Booker, and then Kaminsky rolls to the cup. This forces Morris to help on the drive and now there are two options. Bridges can either stay in the corner wide open for three, or he can cut to the basket for an easy layup. He chooses to cut because he knows KCP will sprint to the three-point line, so he dives to the basket for an easy dunk.
JaMychal Green could be a big factor in this series along with all supporting players. He offers them the ability to switch all screens and has proven to be a strong rebounder. On the offensive end, Denver needs to keep scoring in bunches. They averaged 121 PPG last series, and although Phoenix only averaged 104 PPG last series, they did face the best defense in the league and Denver faced one of the worst.
Jokic will continue to perform like an MVP every night, so it is up to the others to elevate the winning effort. Michael Porter Jr. had a fantastic game in Game 6, and he looks like he’s learning how to impact postseason basketball more and more. Monte Morris was a crucial factor in that series. His secure ball handling and effective scoring gave Denver the advantage. Denver will most likely need three players to have big offensive nights in every game. Jokic is so good we presume 30+ out of him, we would like to presume 20+ from MPJ every night, and then there is an open spot for number three. Some nights it's Morris, some nights is Rivers or possibly Gordon.
It doesn’t always matter who scores, but Denver can ill-afford to have significant scoreless stretches. They will look to attack the paint and open shooters, but it will be more difficult against this Suns defense.
Michael Porter Jr. This might be the most important matchup of the series. We know what Jokic, Paul, and Booker will do most nights, but we still are not completely sure what to expect from Porter every night. He seemed to get better as the series ended which is a good sign, but the Suns will definitely have a game plan for him. I expect Crowder to be on Porter the majority of the time because MPJ struggles at times with physical defenders. They’ll throw different bodies at him, but the way he can stay potent offensively is by mixing it up.
Part of the reason he had a huge first half in Game 6 is because he was diverse offensively. He made a ridiculous amount of threes in the first quarter, but he also drove and cut to the rim. Here’s an example of exhibiting his offensive diversity:
This should be exciting if you’re a Nugget fan because it displays his ability to facilitate. He hasn’t demonstrated it a lot but look at the attention he draws when he does. He wisely drives towards the basket against the smaller defender, spins for a potential turnaround jumper and notices Gordon wide open. When he spins, he’s got three defenders attending to him allowing Gordon to sneak behind Melo and Nurkic.
He is such an incredibly efficient shooter that if he can develop constant aggressiveness and awareness towards the paint, he will be almost unguardable. Phoenix is fully aware of his abilities so they will reach, and be psychical with him on every possession if they can.
Monte Morris. He proved to be the X-factor for Denver last series. He’s a great floor general, but his timely shooting and aggressive drives to the paint completely opened Denver’s offense. He is such a calming presence on the floor, and when the pressure increased his play increased with it.
Yes, Phoenix will be better than Portland defensively, but it simply comes down to making shots for Monte. He’s such a smart player, he knows where his spots are and where to go with the basketball. His 4th quarter scoring will loom large in this series. Jokic should have the ball in his hands the majority of the time, but when he doesn’t Denver needs plays like this:
He’s going to shed Powell thanks to the Jokic screen, but he doesn’t settle at the three-point line. He knows Powell recovered fairly quickly so he needs to attack Nurkic and make him choose between the ball handler or Jokic. He notices Nurkic chooses Jokic so he continues his downward movement, sees Covington at the basket, and rises for the floater.
The game seemed to slow down for Morris in crunch time. He’s had countless matchups with Portland, so he studied game tape for this series and dissected the Blazers. Look for some big nights out of Morris this series.
Deandre Ayton. He’s is a big-bodied, skilled center. He can shoot outside the paint, but for now, he hangs his hat on being a presence inside. He’s a great rebounder for his age and brings a nice level of physicality for his age as well. He’s not a dominant big man yet, but he is trending in the right direction. Jokic has had success and struggles against him, so this an important matchup to watch.
Rebounding is always essential for the Nuggets. When they win the rebounding category, they usually win games. If they don’t box out this big man, he will kill them on the offensive and defensive glass. Gang and guard rebounding will be essential for Denver.
Ayton is a beneficiary of a lot of Chris Paul dimes. Paul is one of the best pick-and-roll facilitators, so they will run that action and do it effectively. We didn’t see a lot of lob passes to the center last series, but we will see a fair share here.
Phoenix might run this action all day against Denver, and the problem is we don’t have a Garry Harris-type perimeter defender to fight over these screens against Paul. Nonetheless, Ayton sets a decent screen that Harris gets over fairly quickly and runs to the rim. Paul maintains good position on Harris, keeping him on his back and forcing Jokic to stay on Paul. By that point, it is pitch and catch. Paul is one of the great lob passers the game has seen.
Paul demands so much attention off the screen because he is so gifted from midrange. Jokic will have to have his head on a swivel every possession. If he sticks too long on Paul, Ayton will slide towards the rim for an easy lob pass as shown here.
Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder. As previously stated, they will make their mark defensively, but they can also shoot the three-ball. Bridges is the better, more consistent shooter as he shot 42.5% from three during the regular season. Crowder on the other hand, is a more volume shooter. He needs more attempts to meet his quota from three, but he can make clutch shots igniting team and fan energy.
The Phoenix offense is predicated on ball movement, and these two are often the beneficiaries of that. Their ball handlers will get downhill and demand help from the defense, so Bridges and Crowder will remain on the perimeter waiting to knock it down.
This isn’t the best video to explain their drive and kick strategy, but it does show how much attention Booker demands. He just probes throughout the defense, forcing everyone to eye him and Crowder hides until Ayton screens Matthews. Denver’s defenders need to keep a constant eye on their man and the ball. Their guards and wings move well without the ball and sneak behind plays for open threes often.
This is a fun matchup to watch. Both teams play the game in similar fashions, but their superstars could not be more different. Booker averaged 30 and Jokic 33 points per game in round one. If Jokic is able to continue his herculean efforts in this series, there will be no question that this is one of the historic individual seasons in NBA history. It already is, but you know how many haters we have around the NBA landscape.
Phoenix is playoff-hungry, evident from their efforts to take down the defending champions. Denver, on the other hand, is playoff-tested. What a matchup we have, and it begins Monday at 8:00 PM MT.