Following a weekend of recovery and preparation, the Denver Nuggets kick off their Western Conference semifinals series against the Phoenix Suns Monday night.
For the first time in Denver’s recent playoff run that began in 2019, the Nuggets will open a series on the road, with Phoenix owning the league’s second-best record during the regular season.
Both teams are coming off impressive victories in the first round, with Denver closing out the Portland Trail Blazers in six games despite missing Jamal Murray, Will Barton III, and PJ Dozier. Meanwhile, Phoenix navigated around an initial injury to Chris Paul to suffocate the Los Angeles Lakers’ offense to win in six games.
Denver won the regular-season series 2-1, but it’s incredibly difficult to take much away from the three matchups, all of which took place in January. This current Nuggets squad is dramatically different in the backcourt following the trade deadline, with Facundo Campazzo and Austin Rivers playing heavy minutes, compared to Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Dozier playing extensive minutes against Phoenix throughout the regular season.
Meanwhile, Michael Porter Jr. missed the first meeting between the two teams, while Devin Booker missed the final contest on Jan. 23.
Projected starters: Facundo Campazzo, Austin Rivers, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, Nikola Jokić
JAMAL MURRAY – LEFT ACL SURGERY. OUT.
WILL BARTON III – RIGHT HAMSTRING STRAIN. OUT.
P.J. DOZIER – RIGHT ADDUCTOR STRAIN. OUT.
TUNE-IN: 8 p.m. MT, TNT and 92.5FM
Key matchup: Nikola Jokić vs. Deandre Ayton
One could very easily claim that Ayton had the most success guarding Jokić during the regular season.
According to the NBA’s tracking data, when Ayton was the primary defender, Jokić shot 13-of-34 from the field (38.2 percent). Ayton is a physical presence in the post and his athleticism allows him to contest a variety of Jokić’s shots.
If Ayton can hold his own one-on-one against Jokić, it will allow Phoenix to adopt a similar defensive approach that the Trail Blazers had in the first round by staying home on shooters and focusing on taking away cuts to the basket.
Look for the Nuggets to run more off-ball actions for Jokić that force Ayton to fight over screens to stay attached to the Serbian big man. If Jokić can also continue to knock down his 3-point attempts, that will go a long way in stretching Ayton out on the perimeter and removing Phoenix’s rim protection. In the first round, Jokić shot 42.9 percent from beyond the arc on 5.8 attempts per game.
How this matchup plays out will likely go a long way in deciding the outcome of this series.
Make life difficult for Paul and Booker
Denver’s shorthanded backcourt will get another test in the form of Chris Paul and Devin Booker. Both players operate in different manners but will test Denver’s guards and pick-and-roll defensive on a possession-by-possession basis.
It will be key for Denver to provide different looks and coverages early for Paul and Booker to navigate. If the two All-Star guards can get comfortable and set the tone in Game 1, it won’t bode well for Denver’s defense moving forward.
If Paul continues to be compromised by the injury, look for Denver to be more aggressive in helping off him when the ball is out of his hands. Look for Monte Morris and Facundo Campazzo to receive the Paul assignment to open the series when they are on the floor. With Gary Harris no longer on the team and Murray, Barton III, and Dozier all out for the moment, look for Austin Rivers and Aaron Gordon to match up against Booker.
A key throughout the series is what Denver decides to do defensively when guarding the pick-and-roll. Throughout the regular season, the Nuggets opted to use a drop coverage, which had the big man (mainly Jokić when Paul and Booker were on the floor) stay back closer to the rim, thus inviting opposing guards to pull up for mid-range or 3-point attempts.
That may be a recipe for disaster against Booker and Paul, who has long been the king of the mid-range. Look for Denver to mix in some switching and blitzing when the Suns go to pick-and-roll sets.
Attack the offensive glass
Given how effective Phoenix has been on the defensive end of the floor this season (the Suns finished the regular season sixth in defensive rating, which has jumped up to fourth in the playoffs), the Nuggets will have to look to attack and weaknesses to create extra scoring opportunities.
One such area could be on the offensive glass, where Phoenix struggled a bit in the first round (allowing the Lakers to grab an offensive rebound on 27.2 percent of their missed shots, which ranked 11th among playoff teams). Meanwhile, Denver posted a 30.6 offensive rebound percentage in the first round, which ranks third in the playoffs.
Denver was an elite offensive rebounding team in the regular season and had a 30-24 advantage in total offensive rebounds across the three regular-season matchups vs. Phoenix. Jokić was downright dominant in those games on the boards, racking up 16 offensive rebounds against the Suns in the regular season.
Against a Suns defense that has been effective in forcing turnovers in the playoffs, Denver will have to be aggressive in generating second-chance opportunities throughout this series.