This might be the best series of the playoffs. This is two absolute offensive juggernauts who have bad matchups against each other all over the floor. There are three MVPs trophies between the two teams and so many big-time shot makers you’ll lose track of them.
The Nuggets have built everything to this moment. This is proof of concept for them. If they lose here, big changes follow.
The Suns are still trying to figure out life with Kevin Durant, but the results have been pretty awesome. They haven’t faced tough competition and lucked out (again) with opponent injuries in Round 1. But they also have maybe the best 1-2 punch of any team in the playoffs with Durant and Devin Booker.
This is a battle of the Suns’ stars vs. the Nuggets team play. Will the better team win out? Or will the Suns’ elite talent carry them forward as the favorites. And how do we find value?
Let’s bet Nuggets vs. Suns, Round 2.
The Most Important Thing: Offense
All of the offense, all of the time. These two teams are both stacked with offensive weapons and don’t have the defensive strengths to counter those combinations.
The Suns don’t have the ability to front Nikola Jokic with a smaller defender and have Deandre Ayton play weakside unless they want to exhaust and risk foul trouble for Durant. They no longer have rangy wing defenders after trading Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson.
The Nuggets struggle with pick-and-roll defense, especially against great shooters in mid-range space who can pass, the specific things the Suns have at all-time levels with Durant and Booker.
The Suns create turnovers, but not at a particularly high right. The Suns take the fewest amount of shots at the rim of any playoff team, but … the Nuggets are the worst team in the league defending the rim.
Ayton had a lot of success against Jokic two years ago in the Suns’ sweep against a much worse Nuggets team (without Jamal Murray).
Since then, Jokic is 21-of-33 from the field, scoring 48 points, 17 assists in 29 minutes and 30 seconds of matchup time over the past two seasons. If Ayton can’t handle Jokic 1-on-1, the Suns will likely feel compelled to bring help, and that’s when the Nuggets’ offense hits you in waves.
Durant shot 4-of-5 against Aaron Gordon this season. There are few-to-no defenders on Earth who can even bother him, and none of them play for the Nuggets.
The Suns ran the most isolation plays of any team in the playoffs in the first round. The Nuggets are the eighth-worst isolation defensive team this season and seventh-worst in the playoffs.
The Suns gave up the 10th-most second-chance points in the league per 100 possessions this season; Denver didn’t create many second chance points in the regular season, but that’s because their offense is already efficient. The Nuggets ranked 11th in percentage of times they scored on offensive rebounds this season.
These teams can’t stop each other.
The Nuggets and Suns both play slow; they both finished bottom 10 in Pace. But the efficiency is going to be through the roof. Overs are going to be good moves in this series until the market adjusts.
The Pendulum: Deandre Ayton
As mentioned above, after Ayton’s success against Jokic two years ago, Jokic did what he typically does: destroy guys once he figures them out.
If Ayton gets in trouble vs. Jokic, whether giving up too much efficiency or fouls, the whole team construct falls apart. Having to go to Bismack Biyombo would be a disaster. Having to go to Durant at the five would space the floor but make it easier for Jokic to wear Durant down and potentially get him in foul trouble.
On the other end, Ayton will have chances on the short roll as a creator. When the Nuggets blitz the ball handler to get the ball out of their hands, Ayton can take the short jumper or look to pass to the corner. The Nuggets will get better at timing up their rotations as the series goes on, so he has to do work early to force that adjustment and allow for counter-adjustments by Phoenix.
Book and KD are Book and KD, and while Chris Paul is not as good as he once was, he’s as good once as he ever was. But Ayton is the guy whose coach is constantly sneering at, whose teammates are constantly frustrated by, and who really wanted to be gone in restricted free agency.
This is a monster test for Ayton. You match Indiana’s offer because you need him for this series. He needs to at least survive his roll, if not thrive, in certain games to help them win.
One More Thing: Foul Trouble
The Suns lead the league in the playoffs in free throw attempts per game. They not only draw fouls, but they draw shooting fouls. The Nuggets led all teams in the first round in fouls per game.
Every advantage Denver has dissipates if they have to get into their bench. Perimeter players are fine — they have Bruce Brown and Christian Braun to soak up minutes — but if it’s frontcourt players, there’s trouble. Obviously, if Jokic is in foul trouble, Denver’s doomed.
But also, if Gordon or Michael Porter Jr. picks up fouls, that means Jeff Green, or rookie Peyton Watson, Zeke Nnaji, or Vlatko Cancar. That would be disastrous.
Those free throws help balance out the math advantage that Denver has in this series.
The Bet: Nuggets -1.5 (+240)
This is not a bet built on confidence in the Nuggets. It’s centered around the fact that once we get to Game 6, it’s a coin flip; I believe enough in the Nuggets’ ability to take two games off the Suns (+2.5, -700) that I’m willing to put money on them to swing it in the final two.
The Suns have the better individual talent. But the Nuggets have more cohesion, more options, more overall weapons, the math advantage, and home-court advantage.
Craig is a 40% 3-point shooter now. He’s likely not the 63% shooter he was in the first round. Paul has slid just enough (though he will be awesome in at least two games in this series). Ayton is in a tough spot. The bench is almost non-existent.
I think you can bet Denver to win the series outright (+116, FanDuel), Denver +1.5 (-164). But I’ll take the +240 with the belief that the Nuggets can get leverage enough to have a chance to close this out.
Game 1 Bets: Nuggets -2.5 | Over 226
Game 1’s are often weird. Denver is -2.5, which essentially suggests that this is pretty solidly Suns favored on a neutral court. Even if you have the Suns as a 1.5-3-point favorite vs. Denver on a neutral court, you have to factor in how good Denver is at home.
It’s true that Denver, historically, has been worse ATS in the playoffs than in the regular season due to the adjustment period to altitude, the absence of back-to-backs, and how often teams just punt games in Denver in the regular season.
However, the opposite has been true in the playoffs in the Jokic era.
The Nuggets are 50% ATS since 2018-19 at home in the regular season. They are 58% in the playoffs at home in that span.
They are just 3-2 straight up and ATS in Game 1s, however.
Still, regular season, even with the most generous of adjustments to the Suns, I still have the Nuggets as -5.5 here.
My best bet, though, is the over 226. (I bet it 225 at open but DraftKings has the best number as of this writing.) This is going to be an offensive series, and I will trust the efficiency to win out over the pace.