2023 Playoffs: West Conf. Semifinal | Nuggets vs. Suns

Series preview: Star-heavy battle on deck for Nuggets-Suns series

Breaking down the Denver-Phoenix matchup with 3 things to watch, 1 X-factor and a series prediction.

Nikola Jokic and Deandre Ayton’s last playoff matchup was in the 2021 semifinals, a 4-0 sweep by the Suns.

Three of the most likely candidates to capture the Earvin “Magic” Johnson Trophy — the award given to the Western Conference finals MVP — hit the floor Saturday for Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals at Ball Arena.

When that happens, reigning two-time Kia MVP Nikola Jokic will lead the Denver Nuggets against a star-studded Phoenix squad headlined by 2014 MVP Kevin Durant and All-Star guard Devin Booker.

Both teams handled their business quickly in eliminating their first-round opponents in five games.

Denver punched its ticket to the next round first on Tuesday, outlasting the Minnesota Timberwolves 112-109 in Game 5 behind a 28-point triple-double from Jokic and a game-high 35 points from Jamal Murray.

Phoenix ousted the shorthanded LA Clippers just hours later in that series’ Game 5 as Devin Booker scored 25 points in the third quarter (and finished with a postseason career-high-tying 47 points) in a 136-130 victory.

Although the teams faced off four times in the regular season — each team won twice — Durant wasn’t yet a member of the Suns when Denver defeated them by a combined 32 points in the first two meetings prior to the All-Star break. When the clubs clashed again for the last two matchups of the regular season over a span of seven days (March 31 to April 6), Jokic was out of the lineup due to a calf injury.

Both players serve as catalysts for two of the three highest-rated offenses left in the playoffs. So, expect copious buckets from a couple of teams that enter the second round relatively healthy.

Regular-season results 

Dec. 25: Nuggets 128, Suns 125 (OT)
Jan. 11: Nuggets 126, Suns 97
March 31: Suns 100, Nuggets 93
April 6: Suns 119, Nuggets 115

3 things to watch 

Shaq, Charles, Kenny and EJ preview the upcoming Suns-Nuggets series.

Battle in the paint: The big men own seven victories apiece in head-to-head matchups, but Jokic would gladly take Deandre Ayton’s 4-0 record against the Nuggets in the postseason. The last time Jokic and Ayton met in the playoffs, Phoenix swept Denver in the 2021 West semifinals. The two-time MVP committed a Flagrant 2 foul in the second half of the decisive Game 4 that led to his ejection. Despite the losing effort, Jokic dominated Ayton throughout the series, outscoring his Suns counterpart 100-57 and winning the rebounding battle 53-42. Ayton now has more firepower to help on the perimeter in Durant, Booker and Chris Paul. But don’t sleep on Denver sharpshooters Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Michael Porter Jr. Jokic is more equipped than Ayton to find open shooters for buckets. So, Ayton must limit Jokic’s impact as a facilitator while also helping the Suns by attacking the basket and not settling for mid-range shots.

Which team is deeper?: LA exposed Phoenix’s lack of depth in Game 1 of that series and, despite losing the series, the Clippers’ bench ran circles around the Suns’ reserves in pretty much every game. After the first round, Denver’s bench has the playoffs’ second-best net rating (4.3), while Phoenix (-1.1) ranks ninth in that category. The Suns’ bench issues are one of the main reasons that Durant and Booker are currently No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in postseason minutes. In nearly every Suns lineup, coach Monty Williams makes sure to leave at least two of the team’s starters on the floor. That could lead to fatigue down the stretch of games when Phoenix needs maximum effort from its stars.

Youth vs. experience at the point: Phoenix point guard Chris Paul owns a whopping 147 games of postseason experience, while the 26-year-old Murray is set to play in his 39th career playoff game come Saturday. Paul surely will utilize some veteran savvy in trying to keep up with the bigger and faster Murray, who at 6-foot-4 is the shortest player in Denver’s starting lineup. Murray averaged 25.3 points, 6.8 assists and 6.0 rebounds per game in the first four games of the opening round as the clear-cut No. 2 option to Jokic. The Suns might try to put Paul on Caldwell-Pope, but Denver’s lengthy starting lineup makes practically every matchup a mismatch for Paul. Expect Booker and Durant to spend time guarding Murray in this series. Paul’s main contributions will have to come on offense as an effective fourth option and facilitator that keeps turnovers to a minimum.


Devin Booker was on a scoring barrage throughout the first round vs. the Clippers.

Devin Booker. He gets the nod because of his underrated defense — which will be key in slowing down Murray this series — while Durant will most likely be tasked with guarding Porter Jr. Booker leads the NBA in postseason scoring (37.2 ppg), and in Game 5 he moved past Charles Barkley for the franchise lead in career playoff games with 30 points or more (19). Still, we don’t give Booker enough credit for his commitment to playing gritty defense on a nightly basis. After all, Booker also leads the league in playoff steals (2.6). The only concern for “Book” going into this series is the heavy workload he’s carrying, having played 41 minutes or more in all five games so far this postseason.

Number To Know

27.3% — In their first round series against the Clippers, the Suns took only 27.3% of their shots from 3-point range. That’s the lowest rate in the playoffs by a wide margin, the lowest rate for any team in any series in the last four postseasons, and down from the Suns’ rate of 36.2% (20th) in the regular season. And the Clippers were not a team that suppressed opponent 3-point attempts to a great degree.

The Suns shot 40.8% (second best through Tuesday) from beyond the arc over the five games, but were still outscored by 7.8 points per game from 3-point range. They have three of the best mid-range shooters we’ve ever seen, and Paul, Booker and Durant all shot better than 50% from mid-range in the first round. But they didn’t get to the rim much and the math works against you when you only take about half of your shots from the restricted area or 3-point range.

The Nuggets aren’t a high-volume 3-point shooting team either, and they took 36.9% of their shots (fourth lowest in the first round) from 3-point range in their five-game series against the Timberwolves, though that’s still a much higher rate than the Suns. As they split four meetings in regular-season, Phoenix actually made 11 more 3s than Denver, though four of the Nuggets’ starters played in only two of those games.

— John Schuhmann

The pick

The winner of this series likely winds up in the NBA Finals, especially when you consider the dogfights in progress on the other side of the bracket with Sacramento and Golden State. Phoenix possesses all the offensive firepower between stars Durant and Booker, but Denver can lean on its depth and overall cohesiveness under coach Michael Malone, the NBA’s fourth-longest tenured coach. Still, the Suns are growing every game that Durant and Booker are on the floor together. Suns in 7.

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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