Game 4 Preview: Denver Nuggets look to extend series vs. Suns

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

The Denver Nuggets are no strangers to having their backs against the wall. After making two 3-1 series comebacks in the 2020 NBA Playoffs, Denver is a team that can never truly be counted out.

However, following a 116-102 loss to the Phoenix Suns in Game 3 Friday night, Denver is down 3-0 in this Western Conference semifinals series. No team in NBA history has ever come back from such a deficit.

MORE: Takeaways from Game 3

Nikola Jokić was presented with his 2020-21 MVP trophy in a pregame ceremony and followed that with a 32-point, 20-rebound, 10-assists triple-double. It was only the third such triple-double in the history of the playoffs. However, Denver’s supporting cast struggled to hit shots and the Nuggets finished the night at 41.1 percent from the field.

Meanwhile, Phoenix was led by its All-Star backcourt of Chris Paul (27 points and eight assists) and Devin Booker (28 points), and the Suns shot 46.2 percent from beyond the arc.

Sunday’s Game 4 presents Denver with an opportunity to avoid a sweep and keep its season alive.

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

TUNE-IN: 6 p.m. MT, TNT and 92.5FM

Key matchup: Nikola Jokić vs. Deandre Ayton

Heading into this series, this was considered the key matchup overall because of the ramifications it could have on each team’s supporting cast and schemes. If Ayton could replicate his success from the regular season in making life difficult for the 2020-21 MVP, Phoenix’s off-ball defenders could stay home on shooters and take away cuts to the basket.

Through three games, that has been the case. According to the NBA’s tracking data, Jokić has shot 39.1 percent from the field when Ayton is his primary defender. Although in those minutes, the Serbian big man has connected on just 2-of-10 from downtown. Removing those attempts from the overall numbers, Ayton has limited Jokić to 44.4 percent shooting inside the arc.

Jokić has averaged 6.3 assists per game this series, which is an increase from the first round, but the three-time All-Star has had to work for each bucket he’s scored this series. Often facing multiple defenders and crowded paints when working in the post. Jokić getting hot from deep would go a long way in extending Denver’s season Sunday night.

Attack the offensive glass

One area Denver has continued to have success against Phoenix is on the offensive glass. In Game 3, the Nuggets finished with 18 offensive rebounds compared to four for the Suns. Of course, when one team misses more shots that creates additional opportunities for second-chance points.

However, despite that significant advantage in offensive rebounds, Denver only had seven more second-chance points than Phoenix Friday night. The other risk with attacking the offensive glass is that it exposes your transition defense.

17.2 percent of Phoenix’s possessions began with a transition play Friday night, and the Suns finished with a 12-2 advantage in fast break points. Denver would love to simply hit more shots Sunday night, but if it’s another struggle in that regard, continuing to dominate on the offensive glass will be key to remaining competitive.

Who will step up for Denver?

Friday night continued an unfortunate trend for the Nuggets throughout the series, with no player stepping up to be a clear second option behind Jokić on the offensive end.

Monte Morris finished with 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting from the field Friday night, while Michael Porter Jr. finished with 15 points. Will Barton III chipped in with 14 points in his second game back after returning from injury.

The Nuggets will need Porter Jr. and Barton III to be aggressive Sunday night in looking for their own offense, with Barton III and Morris playing key roles as Denver’s best perimeter options to break down Phoenix’s perimeter defense and get inside the paint to potentially open drive-and-kick opportunities.

With the season on the line, it will be interesting to see who steps up for Denver Sunday night.

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