Denver Nuggets vs. Phoenix Suns: Guide to the Western Conference semifinals

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

Despite missing three key members of the backcourt in Jamal Murray, Will Barton III, and PJ Dozier for the entirety of the first round, the Denver Nuggets continued to simply find a way and advanced to the Western Conference semifinals following a 126-115 Game 6 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers Thursday.

A weekend off will give Denver time to recover and prepare for an intriguing second-round matchup against the Phoenix Suns, who overcame a 2-1 series deficit to defeat the Los Angeles Lakers.

Phoenix’s backcourt presents another difficult challenge for Denver, who will hopefully add Barton III back at some point in the series. Chris Paul is a playoff-tested floor general, while Devin Booker averaged 29.7 points and five assists per game in his first playoff series.

Let’s take a closer look at how this series could play out, beginning with a look back at the regular-season series.

Season series: 2-1 Denver

Once again, it’s incredibly difficult to take much away from the three regular-season 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 did against Phoenix throughout the regular-season series.

Murray, Barton III, and Dozier played in all three games during the regular season, which won’t translate into Denver’s playoff rotation. Meanwhile, Michael Porter Jr. missed the first meeting between the two teams, while Devin Booker missed the final contest on Jan. 23.

Dario Saric, a key member of Phoenix’s second unit, missed all three games of the season series, while former Nugget Torrey Craig was still a member of the Milwaukee Bucks back in January. Craig averaged 10.5 minutes per game in the first round and could be asked to provide wing defense off the bench against Porter Jr. and the Nuggets.

One thing that could carry over to the regular season is Nikola Jokić’s play against Phoenix during the regular season. Although the numbers paint the picture that the Serbian big man struggled against Deandre Ayton (more on that in a little bit), Denver’s MVP frontrunner found plenty of success overall against the Suns in the regular season, averaging 25.7 points, 13.7 rebounds, and 8.3 assists per game on 50.8 percent shooting from the field and 50 percent from beyond the arc.

Key matchup: Nikola Jokić vs. Deandre Ayton

How this matchup plays out will likely go a long way in deciding the outcome of this series. According to the numbers (the NBA’s tracking data), Deandre Ayton had the most success in the regular season when it came to defending Jokić.

When Ayton was the primary defender, Jokić shot 13-of-34 from the field (38.2 percent). The Nuggets will certainly look to get Jokić going through a variety of on-and-off ball actions, but Ayton has the strength and length to make life difficult for the three-time All-Star, especially in the post. Jokić noted that himself, following Denver’s double-overtime victory in Phoenix back on Jan. 23.

“He plays really good defense,” Jokić said. “He stopped me five, six, seven, eight times. Give that guy credit. He was really good tonight.”

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 Jokić and 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.

On the other end of the floor, Ayton had plenty of success against the Nuggets in the regular season, averaging 22 points and 12.3 rebounds per game on 70 percent shooting from the field. When Jokić was his primary defender, the 22-year-old big man shot 13-of-22 (59.1 percent), which is slightly lower than his overall regular-season field-goal percentage of 62.6 percent.

Ayton is capable of scoring in the post and hitting mid-range jumpers but look for Chris Paul and Devin Booker to attack Denver and Jokić in the pick-and-roll, which may open up alley-oop or dump-off opportunities for Ayton to get easy buckets.

Avoiding foul trouble will also be crucial for both big men, as seen in the first round where Jusuf Nurkić wasn’t able to stay on the floor enough to make life difficult for Jokić. Both Jokić and Ayton had plenty of success against the other defensive options on both sides, so both big men must avoid unnecessary fouls throughout the series.

Keys to the series

1) How will Phoenix defend Porter Jr.?

After missing the first contest between these two teams on New Year’s Day, Porter Jr. returned from a lengthy absence for the back-to-back set later in the month. The 22-year-old only averaged 27.5 minutes per game in those two contests and came off the bench, resulting in averages of 10.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game on 50 percent shooting from the field and from beyond the arc.

Phoenix presents an interesting matchup for Porter Jr., as the Suns have several capable wing defenders in Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, and Porter Jr.’s former teammate in Craig.

In the regular season, it was Abdel Nader who matched up with Porter Jr. the most, but Nader hasn’t seen the court as part of Phoenix’s playoff rotation. In a larger role within Denver’s offense and back in the starting lineup, look for Suns head coach Monty Williams to throw both Bridges and Crowder at Porter Jr. to provide the young forward with multiple different looks.

Bridges uses his incredible length and wingspan to get steals, deflections, and blocks, while Crowder will get physical in hopes of making Porter Jr. uncomfortable. Denver’s rising star did well to respond following Norman Powell’s aggressive physicality in the first round, as Porter Jr. scored 52 points across Games 5 and 6 last week.

Once again, look for Nuggets head coach Michael Malone to use Porter Jr. with the second unit at times to get him in a flow. During those minutes, Williams could counter with keeping Bridges or Crowder on the floor, or by deploying Craig to match up with his former teammate.

Regardless, Denver will need another big series from Porter Jr. in hopes of hanging with Phoenix.

2) Another test for Denver’s shorthanded backcourt

After surviving a series against Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, Denver is rewarded with a series against… Chris Paul and Devin Booker.

Paul has provided a spark for this Suns squad throughout the season as a steady playmaker, capable scorer, and veteran leader. However, Paul’s effectiveness was limited in round one following a shoulder injury suffered in the first half of the opening game against the Lakers. The future Hall-of-Famer averaged just 9.2 points per game on 38.6 percent shooting from the field and 20 percent from beyond the arc.

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.

Meanwhile, Booker is enjoying a breakout playoff debut, highlighted by his 47-point performance Thursday night to close out Phoenix’s series against the Lakers. With Gary Harris no longer on the team and Murray, Barton III, and Dozier all out at the moment, look for Austin Rivers and Aaron Gordon to match up against Booker.

Gordon is an intriguing option for Michael Malone to go to, similar to what Denver did against Damian Lillard in the first round. In the regular season, Gordon didn’t defend Booker often, but he did limit the dynamic young scorer to 2-of-6 shooting from the field in those minutes, according to the NBA’s tracking data.

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.

3) Battle of the second units

For both teams, capable depth has been a calling card throughout the season.

During the regular season, Phoenix’s second unit led the league in plus-minus at plus-138 (Denver finished 13th at +28), while the Nuggets’ second unit has led the league in points during the playoffs, scoring 214 in the first round, compared to 171 for the Suns.

Both teams deploy capable guards (Cameron Payne for Phoenix, Morris for Denver) and versatile frontcourts on their respective bench lineups, making it especially intriguing to see which team can gain an advantage when the reserves come in.

The JaMychal Green/Paul Millsap pairing has had success for Denver in the second half of the season and presents a nice matchup for Phoenix’s backup frontcourt options, which include Craig, Cameron Johnson, Saric, and Frank Kaminsky.

Staggering starters will also be key throughout the series. Phoenix tends to stagger Paul and Booker so one is always on the floor, while Denver has brought Porter Jr. back in with the second units throughout the playoffs to allow him to be a focal point of the offense.

If Barton III and/or Dozier can return in this series, that could also shift Denver’s second unit and provide different looks for the Suns to match up with.

Potential x-factor: Aaron Gordon

It flew under the radar, but Gordon had himself a solid playoff debut with his new squad.

His 3-pointer to seal the Game 6 victory over the Trail Blazers capped off a series in which the 25-year-old shot 60 percent from beyond the arc. With averages of 12.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game, Gordon did a little bit of everything for the Nuggets last round.

Denver will ask the former fourth-overall pick to do the same against Phoenix. From matching up against the likes of Booker and Bridges on defense to picking his spots and hitting open 3-pointers on offense, Gordon can continue to be a jack-of-all-trades player for the Nuggets.

Gordon’s ability to switch onto smaller players may prove to be crucial against Phoenix, especially with a limited Paul. Denver can look to roll out smaller lineups with Gordon, Green, and potentially Millsap and try to slow down Phoenix’s offense with switches. When the Nuggets aren’t switching, they will rely on Gordon to provide quality help defense when the Suns are rotating the ball to find the open shot.

Gordon may not provide the flashy dunks night in and night out, but his contributions were crucial against Portland, and his versatility will remain key against this Suns squad.

Game 1 between Denver and Phoenix will tip at 8 p.m. MT on Monday and will air on TNT.

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