It seems that I get stuck with the painful games more often than not when writing about my personal takeaways.
Tonight was no different. The Denver Nuggets came out firing, played well through the middle of the third quarter and had even built themselves a 10-point lead before everything collapsed. The Phoenix Suns won the game behind an extended 59-33 run from the 7:30 mark of the third quarter onward. Phoenix controlled the momentum of the game, capitalized on Denver’s mistakes consistently, and hit some supremely tough shots to go with the easy ones they generated every other possession.
This game isn’t one to be too up in arms about because there are some issues the Nuggets can correct going forward; however, there are some holes in Denver’s schemes that they will have to correct, as well as some changes to be made offensively.
Here are my five takeaways:
Nikola Jokić wasn’t himself tonight
It was a rough game for Nikola Jokić overall. Nuggets fans are often used to the dominant scoring and playmaking; however, it seemed like Jokić hit a wall in the third quarter and struggled to make plays after that.
Jokić finished with 22 points, nine rebounds, and three assists, but the most important factor in his stat line was the 10-of-23 shooting from the field, including zero free throws attempted. Deandre Ayton spent most of the night defending the Joker, and rather than go through Ayton on post up attempts, Jokić often used jump shots, fadeaways, and post moves falling away from the basket rather than heading toward it. Give Ayton credit: he held up his end of the bargain and finished with just one foul, allowing him the freedom to be more physical with Jokić later in the game.
Jokić was often caught looking at the referees in a dumbfounded way after not getting foul calls at various points. The Suns as a team were the aggressors, and they received the benefit of the doubt at the foul line because of it. Jokić will have to get more aggressive going toward the paint. Just because he can hit tough shots doesn’t mean they have to be his focus. He needs to find easier shot locations for himself and others going forward, or else this will be a short series.
The Suns figured out the Nuggets pick and roll defense
Part of the allure of playing the Phoenix Suns over the Portland Trail Blazers was having an opportunity to face a team that didn’t take threes from 30 feet away from the basket. The Nuggets saw what they expected to see on pick and rolls from Phoenix, and Denver did a nice job of hedging in the first half. In the second half though, the Suns manipulated the help defender on the strong side, forcing whoever the low man was to choose between helping at the rim and recovering back to the corner. The Suns also did this when the help came from the weak side, and the fourth quarter was a five alarm fire with how easily the Suns made both open and contested shots in and around the paint.
This is a cat and mouse game that the Suns clearly were prepared for as they adjusted on the fly. The Nuggets will have an opportunity to make adjustments of their own, but they will be in trouble if those fall through in Game 2. Look for the Nuggets to experiment both with trapping harder at the top of the key and if not trapping at all.
Aaron Gordon posting up Devin Booker was an interesting wrinkle
The one token of solace for the Nuggets in this Game 1 was the aggressiveness and assertiveness of Aaron Gordon in the post. When Gordon was being checked by Booker, the Nuggets threw the ball to Gordon in the post for some bully ball action, and Gordon largely succeeded. He pushed Booker under the basket on several occasions and use his size to his benefit getting right under the rim.
The Suns often used Mikal Bridges on Facu Campazzo and Monte Morris which placed Jae Crowder on Michael Porter Jr., so there were opportunities for Gordon to post up Booker under the basket. If he continues to put pressure on that matchup, the Suns might have to alter their defensive assignments around.
Monte Morris and Austin Rivers have to be better
It’s pretty simple. Morris and Rivers shot 3-of-17 from the field and 1-of-8 from the three-point line. Both players moved the ball well and combined for 10 assists, but the shotmaking is almost more important than the passing. The Nuggets must continue to find ways to properly space the floor, and the Nuggets need their slashing guards to be able to hit shots both on the perimeter but also on the move. If Denver can’t take advantage of Phoenix’s pick and roll coverage that is so heavily focused on Jokić, then this will be a short series.
The Suns are better than the Blazers...but not unbeatable
It’s pretty clear based on their ability to stay together and connected that the Suns are simply a better team than the Blazers were. They have more talent overall, they trust each other, and their schemes are stronger on both ends of the floor. The Nuggets are going to have their work cut out for them.
However, I still think the Nuggets should feel like they’re in this series. They had an awful run go against them that was basically the difference of the game, and they weren’t able to recover from it. They will have to be more focused and avoid letting go of the rope. They have very little margin for error with as many injuries as they have in their backcourt already.
Still, I trust Nikola Jokić to figure this out. He was subpar tonight when generally, he’s excellent. Ayton didn’t do anything outlandish against him that Jusuf Nurkić wasn’t already doing, and Jokić has to realize that, pick his spots better, and apply pressure in better ways than before. He’s capable of doing that, and though he will need shooting help from the supporting cast, I doubt Rivers and Morris shoot as badly as they did tonight.