2021 Playoffs: West Semifinal | Suns (2) vs. Nuggets (3)

Series Preview: Will Nuggets' injuries finally catch up vs. Suns?

Denver has been impressive overcoming injuries, but Phoenix's defense and cohesion present a daunting challenge.

Which team has the edge in the Suns-Nuggets series?

We all know competition ticks up several notches in the postseason. But if the regular-season series between these teams is any indication, we should expect a gritty, knockdown street fight between this pair of young, hungry teams looking to stake their claim in the wide-open Western Conference playoffs.

Denver won the regular-season series between the teams 2-1, but keep in mind the average margin of victory in these games was just five points, with the Nuggets coming out on top in the last two meetings in January on consecutive days in overtime and double overtime.

Devin Booker didn’t dress for Phoenix’s 120-112 loss in double overtime on Jan. 23, but back then the Nuggets could lean heavily on both Kia MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, who was subsequently lost for the season back in April due to a torn left ACL.

Jokic averaged nearly a triple-double during the regular season against the Suns, but without Murray in the fold, Michael Porter Jr. will be counted upon to assume his production. Porter averaged 18.8 points in the opening round against the Portland Trail Blazers. Denver could also start this series on Monday without P.J. Dozier (adductor) and guard Will Barton (hamstring), who just might be on the verge of returning to the lineup.

“You see all these other teams in the playoffs and a lot is made of guys being out with injuries,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Jamal Murray’s been out for 24 games now and look what we’ve done without a guy that was one of the best players in the bubble last year. We’re down two starters. We’re down another guy in P.J. Dozier, who is one of the first guys off the bench.

“So, what it says about our group is that we’re resilient, we’re mentally tough, we believe in ourselves and we believe in our teammates. That’s a great feeling. We’re gonna need that same resolve moving forward. I’m hoping that we can get a player or two back. But if we don’t, what a great opportunity. That’s why I love that group because no matter who you call upon, they’re ready to go out there and simply do their job.”

Three things to watch

1. Battle of the bigs. Ayton gradually tapered off offensively in the opening round. He averaged 22 points in the first three games of the opening round series, and 10 points in the last three games. But in this series, defense is where Ayton needs to make his mark guarding Jokic, who shot 56.6% from the field against Phoenix in the regular season for an average of 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists. The Suns come into this series with a defensive rating of 102.6, and they’re allowing an average of 44.7 points in the paint. Jokic is probably most dangerous as a facilitator, but Ayton appears to be peaking as a defender at just the right time. Ayton is long and versatile, and capable of holding his own when switched onto guards. Offensively, Ayton’s ability as a screener and roller opens up things for Chris Paul and Devin Booker. So, while Jokic enters this matchup with Kia MVP pedigree, don’t sleep on Ayton. It’s probably a more even matchup than you think.

2. How Denver deals with Phoenix’s backcourt. This is where the absences of Murray and Barton hurt Denver the most. Rookie Facundo Campazzo and Austin Rivers will take on the responsibility of guarding Paul and Booker, which isn’t an easy assignment for even the league’s best guards. Paul has fought through a nagging right shoulder injury throughout the playoffs, but it hasn’t significantly hindered his ability to produce as a playmaker. Paul dished a total of 46 assists in the first round with just nine turnovers, while Booker is coming off a playoff career-high 47 points in the closeout game against the Lakers. For as much faith as Malone has in his team, he’s surely looking at the matchups in the backcourt as a major disadvantage. Malone pulled off a couple of nice adjustments in the opening round against Portland, and even threw off Damian Lillard for a short spell by putting forward Aaron Gordon on him.

3. Mikal Bridges vs. Michael Porter Jr. Bridges is Phoenix’s designated stopper on defense, which means he routinely draws the assignment of guarding the opponent’s best perimeter player. So you can count on Bridges guarding Michael Porter Jr. for the majority of this series. Over the last three games of the opening-round series against the Lakers, Bridges registered six steals and three blocks while scoring at least 10 points. Porter, meanwhile, is coming off back-to-back 26-point nights in Games 5 and 6 of Denver’s opening round series. Porter has shot 50% or better from 3-point range in four of his last five games, and he racked up 22 points and six 3-pointers in just the first quarter of Thursday’s win over Portland.

Number to know

158-108 — Over their three regular season meetings (of which Denver won two), the Nuggets outscored the Suns, 158-108, in the paint. That included an 80-48 tally in the Nuggets’ overtime win on Jan. 22. On a per-game basis, that (+16.7) was Denver’s second biggest differential vs. any opponent and Phoenix’s biggest discrepancy. The two starting centers – Nikola Jokic and Deandre Ayton – each scored 46 total points in the paint, but it was 112-62 in Denver’s favor otherwise. Denver also outscored the Suns by eight total points (56-48) at the free throw line.

We shouldn’t take too much out of the regular season meetings. Devin Booker missed one game (the third) for Phoenix, while Michael Porter Jr. missed one (the first) for Denver. The Nuggets’ second leading scorer in the paint (30 total points) was Jamal Murray, who’s out for the season. But Phoenix is a jump-shooting team; Only 43% of their regular-season shots, the league’s second lowest rate, came in the paint. And Denver’s is a defense that will generally allow 3-pointers in favor of preventing shots at the rim; Only 45% of their opponents’ shots, the league’s third lowest rate in the regular season, came in the paint.

All three regular season meetings were within five points in the last five minutes. The Suns outscored the Nuggets by 49 points (188-139) from outside the paint, even though Booker and Chris Paul combined to shoot just 15-for-44 (34%) on pull-up jumpers. This series could very well be a continued match of inside vs. outside.

— John Schuhmann

The pick

Malone and the Nuggets deserve tons of credit for holding everything together all season in the face of daunting circumstances due to so many injuries. Malone mentioned that Denver is the only team still in the postseason utilizing two-way players such as Markus Howard, but you have to wonder when it’s all going to finally catch up to the Nuggets. This series is the type of matchup in which we’re all likely to finally notice the talent deficiency the Nuggets have overcome for quite some time. Denver managed to pick apart Portland’s weak defense, but it now faces a Suns defense that ranked sixth during the regular season. Going all the way back to last season’s bubble, Phoenix has been in synch and on a mission with just the right mix of veteran leadership, experience, youth and hunger. Suns in 6.

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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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