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Denver disappoints in Game 1, should we be concerned? What went wrong and the response for Game 2

The short answer—no.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Denver Nuggets v Phoenix Suns Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Game 1 escaped the Denver Nuggets as they lost 122-105 to the Phoenix Suns. The final score seemed to represent a blowout, but Denver was ahead for the majority until halfway through the third. It was a total team effort from the Suns on Monday. Their leading scorer was Mikal Bridges with 23, and three others scored 20+ including Ayton, Paul, and Booker.

NBA MVP Nikola Jokic stuffed the stat line once again but did not shoot as well as we are accustomed to seeing. He had 22 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, and 3 blocks on 10-23 shooting. Denver’s second-leading scorer was Aaron Gordon who scored 18 on 8-14 from the field.

There were some bright spots for the Nuggets, but their performance in the 4th quarter most likely would not have beaten any team in the league. They looked gassed and their bench did not provide the necessary scoring to keep them afloat.

Overall, it’s another Game 1 loss, and as I tweeted last night, I could not be less worried about this one. Phoenix is a fantastic team, and they very well could win this series, but Denver’s resilience is engraved into my brain and it’s not leaving anytime soon.

So, I begin my piece with an ode to whoever is worried or those who doubt this team.


Relax

In my opinion, Denver won about two and a half quarters while Phoenix won the most important one and a half near the end. In the first quarter, I noted it looked like Denver performed like the more experience and composed team. In the 4th, they looked tired, confused, and unsure. Phoenix played a very frenetic pace early and missed some open shots in which Denver capitalized on the other end. The Suns continued to play at that pace throughout the game which assisted their victory, but the Nuggets will be more acclimated to it for Game 2.

The pace is what I think hurt Denver as the game went on. It seemed like they used all their energy in the first half, and Phoenix avoided fatigue because they are used to that style of play. We first have to remember these teams haven’t played since January. They are relatively unfamiliar with one another, and it showed with a lot of missed assignments and miscommunications by Denver in the second half.

Second, the Nuggets played six games with one of the worst defensive units in the league. It appeared they forgot what it was like to play a good defense, which is understandable. The last time they played a good defense was May 7 in Utah. A whole calendar month consisting of subpar to bad defenses, so I think we can give them a break on this one. If the same effort continues in Game 2 then we can be concerned a little, but never in panic mode with this team.

In the first half, I thought they performed well on the defensive end. Jokic was sprinting his tail off hedging screens, and he looked as energized as I’ve seen him on defense. As I pointed out earlier he had 2 steals and 3 blocks which is a great defensive line for him. Jokic is in great shape, but I don’t know if there are any centers in the league can that run that hard for two quarters and then are forced to run and control the offense at the other end. This was evident as the game moved on because in the second half he shot 3-12 and was settling from the perimeter more than we are used to. Look for him to conserve his energy a bit more in Game 2.

Nugget guards were effective defensively early, and Aaron Gordon slowed Booker about as well as anyone could. Booker will find a way to be a superstar in this series, but I think Gordon’s strength and length are an advantage for Denver.

Other bright spots were Campazzo, Green, and 1st half Michael Porter Jr. No, it’s not ideal and often disappointing that MPJ is more effective in the first half than second but he is learning. I thought he had some great drives to the rim and took advantage of smaller defenders in the first half. Now it is a matter of putting it all together. Let’s not forget he is only 22 years old and is asked to be a huge focal point of an offensive on a championship-caliber team. Those who regularly read my articles know how critical I often am of MPJ and I will address his mistakes later on, but I remain patient on his greatness. If the Nuggets win this series, it will be because MPJ continuously played 4 quarters of good basketball instead of just 2. If this was a Game 4-7, I would be more critical, but it's only Game 1. The eye test reveals he is learning to take advantage of his size combined with his great shooting ability, but he is not close to mastering it yet. Let’s focus on the process instead of the result for a player his age.

Campazzo and Green gave Denver some much-needed energy last night on both nights. Facu had 14 points, 6 assists, and was 3-6 beyond the arc. JaMychal poured in 10 points shooting 2-3 from three and hauled 11 rebounds, 4 of which were offensive. Unfortunately, if you are counting on their scoring, you’re probably losing the ballgame. JaMychal has been really effective on the glass the last two games, and Facu continued his pest-like defense. These two are going to make mistakes, miss shots, and miss assignments at times, but they were the least of Denver’s problems on Monday.

What went wrong

Here is where I get critical. For starters, the shot selection was awful when Phoenix began their scoring runs. Denver settled from the perimeter way too much including Jokic and Porter. When you’re two best offensive players are settling like that it sends a subtle message to the rest of the squad that this is what we need to do to come back. Jokic is the leader of this team, so when he shoots bad shots it influences others to do the same.

Porter had a great first half shooting 5-8 and 2-4 from three. In the second half, he shot 1-5 and 1-4 from three. That means he only attempted one shot inside the three-point line compared to four in the first half. In the playoffs, each game takes on its own personality, and to dissect it further, each half and quarter does as well. Just because you get open looks in the first half does not mean they will be there in the second.

That’s two straight games where Porter relied on his first-half knowledge and was unaware of the changes the opponent made in the second half. These are some of the smartest basketball minds in the world trying to figure out how to stop Denver and vice versa. Coaches love to attack Porter with physicality and he has done a great job in the first half of the last two games giving it right back to them. I don’t know whether it's fatigue, offensive play calling, or what but he has to continue to mix up his game and be aggressive late or Denver’s scoring will proceed to collapse.

Like I said before, let’s focus on the process not the result for now. This play actually begins with a great defensive play from MPJ and then he gets out on the break. He deceives Bridges by slowing down acting like he wants to pull up from three making Bridges crowd him at the three-point line. He wisely drives right past him and now there is only one player at the rim, Devin Booker who is not a rim protector at all. Porter gets his shot blocked because it appeared he was unsure what he wanted to do at the rim. Nonetheless, this is the type of play, with the exception of the block, you want to see out of him late in games. Unfortunately, he did not exercise this ability in the second half, and it might be because he was hesitant to do it again because of this block. Once MPJ grows into full form, this will be a tomahawk dunk with the right hand, or a kick out to Rivers for a three.

The largest disappointment from Monday’s loss was the disappearance of Monte Morris. With Murray out, he is the 3rd scorer and someone who needs to lead this bench unit with Jokic out. He had 2 points on 1-10 shooting, but the most glaring was his game-high -28 plus/minus. For those who are unfamiliar with that stat, it means that when Monte was on the floor throughout the game, Phoenix outscored Denver by 28. That’s a massive detriment to this game.

Monte is a very solid player, so don’t expect this performance from him again this playoff. Although I wouldn’t expect 20+ every night either, he’s too good of a player to perform like that. He’s a proven playoff performer and an intense competitor. If this type of showing was inevitable then I’m glad it happened in Game 1.

Of course, there’s a lot of negatives to point at when losing by 17, but if anything is inevitable in this series, it’s a response from Denver.

The Response

Part of Denver’s response relies on knowledge of their missed assignments. My goodness, how many corner threes did we witness on Monday. Malone noted in his post-game presser that 7 of their 13 threes were from the corner. Bridges was the leading scorer with 23 and more than half his points came from standing on the perimeter just waiting for someone to notice him. Jae Crowder performed the same way in that category. He is not a guy teams worry about taking you off the dribble. His offensive presence is consisted of waiting on the perimeter and diving at the occasional offensive rebound. Here is an example:

This is a huge part of their offense. They set the high screen and roll, have people spread out on the perimeter, thus forcing Denver’s help defenders to choose to stick on their man or the roll man. The issue with this play for Denver is Ayton doesn’t even set a screen. He just shows it so there’s no need for Jokic to help that long on this play. That forces JaMychal to help in the paint and look who’s wide open in the corner. I think it might help if Denver trusts Gordon more on Booker until he proves he needs help. Booker only had 12 shot attempts which were tied for the least in their starting lineup, so Gordon did an effective job not letting him get to his spots.

Another upsetting factor was the free-throw line. Yes, there were some phantom foul calls on Denver but this game was not on the refs. Malone pointed out Phoenix had 8 and ones and called that “soft” on Denver’s part. I agree and so did some of the players. If there is someone heading to an easy bucket, either step in for a charge or take a hard foul. Eight and ones are inexcusable in any game, especially in the playoffs.

On the offensive end, Denver was not aggressive at all towards the rim. As a team, they shot six free throws the entire game. Ayton had only one foul. He averages about 3 fouls per game, so look for Denver to get him in more foul trouble. If they succeed, that forces Phoenix to run Saric or Kaminsky off the bench and that’s a great sign for Denver offensively. Jokic is not only the best player in the world right now, but he’s also the best post player. Ayton is a strong defender inside, but Rudy Gobert is better and Jokic eats Rudy inside because of his post-work.


Again, it’s only Game 1 and we saw Denver lose at home to Portland yet they finished them in six. Phoenix did their job. They needed to win a least one at home, preferably two, and if Denver can take Game 2 then it was a successful road trip for them. Playing on the road is difficult and extremely difficult in the playoffs. I think a lot of people and players forgot how hard it is to play in Phoenix. Their crowd was great and loud on just about every possession of the game.

In general, it was a disappointing loss but not a terrible effort from Denver throughout the entire game. They lost the end of the 3rd and the whole 4th, but for two and a half quarters they looked like the better team. In crunch time they lost it, but there should be no doubts about this team in the clutch. Look for Jokic to be more aggressive in the paint, Morris to shoot better, and fewer missed assignments and miscommunications from the Denver defense.

The Suns are not going to layover and let the Nuggets outplay them in their own building. Denver will need to bring their absolute A-game because this is not a one-man band for Phoenix. They are a very well-balanced team and play fast-paced, but we have the best player on the floor. The MVP led Denver against historic performances from one of the game’s best in Damian Lillard. I’ll be damned if this resilient team and the MVP don’t show their true colors throughout the series. Game 2 starts tomorrow at 7:30 PM MT.