Game 3 Preview: Denver Nuggets return home to continue series vs. Suns

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

The first two games of the Western Conference semifinals did not go according to plan for the Denver Nuggets.

Despite competitive first halves in both Games 1 and 2, third quarters have been Denver’s downfall throughout this series, rendering the second halves non-competitive for the most part.

Despite a solid performance from the 2020-21 NBA MVP Nikola Jokić (24 points, 13 rebounds, and six assists), the Nuggets were ice cold from beyond the arc during the competitive portion of Game 2, and no other Nugget finished with more than 11 points. Will Barton III provided a spark off the bench with 10 points in his return to action.

MORE: Game 2 takeaways

On the other side, Chris Paul continued his mastery of Phoenix’s offense with 17 points, 15 assists, and zero turnovers. The Suns shot 18-of-38 from downtown and seized control of Game 2 early in the second half and never looked back.

Now the series shifts to the Mile High City, where the Nuggets are in full desperation mode, hoping to avoid a 3-0 series deficit.

Projected starters: Facundo Campazzo, Austin Rivers, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, Nikola Jokić

TUNE-IN: 8 p.m. MT, ESPN and 92.5FM

Key matchup: Aaron Gordon vs. Devin Booker

The Suns haven’t had to rely on dominant individual performances throughout the first two games of the series, as highlighted by the six players that finished in double-figures Wednesday night.

As a result, Devin Booker hasn’t had to take over a game like he did several times in the first round against the Los Angeles Lakers. Booker’s scoring has dipped to 19.5 points per game in this series, but he’s scoring more efficiently at 54.8 percent from the field. The 24-year-old has also added seven rebounds and five assists per game throughout the first two games.

Aaron Gordon has often found himself with the defensive assignment of slowing Booker down while trying to find his spots on the offensive end of the floor. In Game 1, Gordon had one of the better performances for Denver, scoring 18 points on 57.1 percent from the field.

However, that dipped to just six points on 42.9 percent shooting in Game 2. If Michael Porter Jr. continues to be limited, the Nuggets will need an aggressive Gordon Friday night. Look for Denver to potentially get Gordon going in the post when he has a smaller defender on him, which is what happened in Game 1.

Who will step up to support Jokić?

As mentioned earlier, Jokić had a solid performance in Game 2 but found himself without a go-to second option on offense, which allowed Phoenix to lock in on the Serbian big man to make life difficult.

Over the first two games, Jokić shot 48.2 percent while averaging 23 points per game. Similar to Portland’s defensive game plan in the first round, the Suns are focusing on staying home on shooters and staying attached to cutters to limit Jokić’s passing opportunities. The result is the 2020-21 MVP averaging just 4.5 assists per game in this series.

The Nuggets will need Porter Jr. to bounce back from a 3-of-13 shooting performance in Game 2, while Monte Morris, Austin Rivers, and Barton III hitting shots would also provide additional relief for Jokić. Given the mismatch between the backcourts for both teams, the Nuggets need to help their MVP as much as possible given the personnel.

Can Denver’s backcourt bounce back at home?

Speaking of Denver’s guards, it has certainly been a struggle to open this series. After scoring 50 points in Games 5 and 6 combined against Portland, Monte Morris scored five points on 2-of-17 shooting from the field in the two games in Phoenix.

Meanwhile, Rivers has scored 13 points so far in this series and Campazzo is coming off a three-point performance on 14.3 percent shooting from the field.

The return of Barton III is crucial for Denver’s backcourt rotation, and the veteran looked good in his return Wednesday night. In 16 minutes, Barton III scored 10 points, dished out three assists, and shot 40 percent from beyond the arc.

It was always going to be an uphill battle for Denver’s backcourt against the Suns. However, a return to the comfort of Ball Arena may be just what the Nuggets’ guards need in this series.

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