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NBA playoffs: Can Nuggets slow down Suns’ offense to kick off Round 2?

No. 1 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 4 Phoenix Suns

Game 1: Suns at Nuggets, 8:30 p.m. ET Saturday (TNT)
Game 2: Suns at Nuggets, 10 p.m. ET Monday (TNT)
Game 3: Nuggets at Suns, 10 p.m. ET May 5 (ESPN)
Game 4: Nuggets at Suns, 8 p.m. ET May 7 (TNT)
*Game 5: Suns at Nuggets, May 9 (TNT)
*Game 6: Nuggets at Suns, May 11 (ESPN)
*Game 7: Suns at Nuggets, May 14
*if necessary

BetMGM series odds: No. 1 Nuggets +115, No. 4 Suns -135

Other conference semifinals previews:
Boston Celtics vs. Philadelphia 76ers: The matchup problems for both teams will be key

The first confirmed series in the second round of the 2023 NBA playoffs pits the Denver Nuggets, the team that led the West for virtually the entire regular season, against the Phoenix Suns, the one that, despite finishing just fourth in the conference, became the hot pick to win it after the trade deadline. (Dealing for Kevin Durant has a way of improving your outlook.)

Both teams vanquished their opening-round opponents in five games, with the Nuggets outclassing the play-in-surviving Timberwolves and the Suns dispatching a Clippers squad that battled, but couldn’t overcome the absences of superstars/primary wing defenders Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The two teams split their season series, 2-2, with Denver winning both meetings before the trade deadline, and Phoenix taking both afterward. But considering Devin Booker got hurt four minutes into Denver’s Christmas Day win, the Suns were without four starters in their January loss, and the Nuggets rested four starters in the first KD-era matchup and all five in the second, we probably can’t take too much away from the tape.

These franchises last met in the playoffs in 2021’s second round. The Suns absolutely dogwalked the Nuggets, burying them beneath a hail of jumpers lofted by Booker, Chris Paul and Jae Crowder. Phoenix outscored Denver by 14.5 points per 100 possessions in an emphatic four-game sweep, which ended with newly minted MVP Nikola Jokić watching from the dressing room after being ejected in the third quarter.

The Nuggets will hope for a different outcome this time around, now that they have a healthy Michael Porter Jr. (who tweaked his back in Game 1 back in 2021), a healthy Jamal Murray (who missed the series after suffering a torn ACL two months earlier) and a reshuffled perimeter rotation that might be better equipped to defend Phoenix’s primary weapons. And yet …

Nuggets center Nikola Jokić drives in the second half of Game 5 of an NBA first-round playoff series on April 25, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Nuggets center Nikola Jokić drives in the second half of Game 5 of an NBA first-round playoff series on April 25, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

3 keys to the series

How does Denver cool off the Suns’ scorching offense?

… the Suns probably feel pretty confident in replicating the result, now that the arsenal includes not only Durant, who averaged 28.4 points and 6.2 assists per game against the Clippers on 52/46/96 shooting splits, but also a version of Booker operating at an even higher level than he reached two years back.

Booker was volcanic against the Clips, averaging 37.2 points per game on obscene 69.7% true shooting and capping it all off with the best postseason performance of his career: 47 points on 19-for-27 shooting, with 10 assists against three turnovers, in 42 minutes in the Game 5 closeout of the Clippers. Having to deal with two of the most versatile and dangerous offensive threats in the league — plus Paul, who’s lost a step but remains one of the best pick-and-roll facilitators in the sport and a credible catch-and-shoot threat, and Ayton, a load as a roll man and offensive rebounder — figures to put a ton of pressure on a Denver defense that bears the burden of proving it’s ready for prime time.

For what it’s worth, the Nuggets finished about league-average in defensive efficiency during the regular season, including eighth after Jan. 1, and defended at a top-five level with Jokić on the floor. Even so, performances like the ones they’ve turned in during the last two postseasons — getting sliced to ribbons by the Warriors in last spring’s first round and by the Suns in 2021 — tend to linger in the mind. Can an improved version of the Nuggets’ D, which can now turn to long and active point-of-attack defenders like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown and rookie Christian Braun rather than relying on the array of smaller and friendlier targets (Facundo Campazzo, Monté Morris, Austin Rivers, Bryn Forbes) on the roster in recent years, find more success in tamping down Phoenix’s attack?

The chief battleground, again, will be the wide swath between the lane and the 3-point line. No offense in the NBA operates in that area as much as the Suns, who took a league-high 40.4% of their shots from the midrange during the regular season, saw that share rise to 44.2% after adding Durant at the trade deadline, and then attempted an eye-popping 53.4% of their shots there during Round 1.

That shot profile strains against the fabric of the modern NBA, running counter to more than a decade of analytics-informed tactics suggesting that the straightest path to an efficient offense is eschewing contested midrange looks in favor of trying to generate 3-point looks, free throws and layups. For elite shotmakers like the ones Phoenix employs, though, those in-between pull-ups are layups: Durant, Booker and Paul ranked second, fifth and 16th this season in midrange makes, respectively, and first, ninth and 14th in midrange accuracy among players with at least 100 attempts.

Those rhythm pull-ups are hell on drop pick-and-roll coverage … which, coincidentally, is what Denver plays most often. Sink your screen-defending big man back into the paint and watch the Suns rain fire. Keep the big up to touch at the level of the screen to try to stifle the pull-ups — which is the way Jokić often prefers to guard the pick-and-roll — and you risk Phoenix exposing him as a lumbering liability in space, while also asking your low-man help defenders to do the heavy lifting of protecting the rim behind the play. Aaron Gordon’s pretty good at that, but guarding Durant demands the kind of attention that’ll likely limit him as a helper. Can Porter Jr., whose defensive work has improved quite a bit over the past couple of years, be a factor in that role? If the Sun that MPJ’s helping off is Torrey Craig, will the former Nuggets wing continue his torrid shooting from Round 1 (12-for-16 inside the arc, 10-for-18 from 3)?

Nobody expects Denver to stop Phoenix. To have any chance of going back to the Western Conference finals, though, head coach Michael Malone and his staff have got to find a way to at least slow down the Suns.

Can Deandre Ayton hold his own against Nikola Jokić again?

Jokić’s stat line from the 2021 playoff matchup with Phoenix — 25 points, 13.3 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game — doesn’t exactly scream “shut down.” The big fella had to scrap for those numbers, though, shooting 47.7% from the field and 27.8% from long distance in the series — substandard marks produced, in part, by Ayton going toe-to-toe and staying step-for-step with him every time they locked up.

The MVP shot just 42.2% when Ayton guarded him in that series, according to NBA.com’s matchup data. Ayton’s ability to body Jokić in the post, slide his feet with him on the perimeter, get a hand up on those moonball jumpers and do it all one-on-one without requiring extra help played a massive role in holding the Nuggets to just 107.6 points per 100 in the series — nearly nine points per 100 below their season average — which, in turn, played a massive role in the Suns drumming Denver out of the postseason in four games.

Jokić has only gotten more lethal offensively since that series, averaging a career-high 27.1 points per game last season while shooting an absurd 67.5% on 2-point shots this season. Ayton hasn’t had quite the same level of success against him since, either: Jokić has scored 48 points on 21-for-33 shooting against Ayton in three meetings over the past two regular seasons. Limiting his scoring is hard; limiting his playmaking is harder; limiting both and keeping him off the offensive glass is damn near impossible. And yet, that’s the task facing Ayton over the next couple of weeks.

Push him out on every catch. Stay down on every pivot, pump-fake and pirouette. Contest every shot without fouling, then sprint to the glass to vacuum the defensive rebound. Run the floor like a bat out of hell, making a beeline straight for the rim. Screen, re-screen and re-screen again for your ballhandlers, forcing Jokić to expend energy trying to stay afloat on the perimeter. Once the shot’s up, bull-rush to the offensive boards and force him to put a body on you to keep you from extending possessions. And when it’s over, go do it all again.

Ayton occupies an interesting place in the Suns’ hierarchy. He’s a former No. 1 overall pick, but not the face of a franchise that belongs to Booker; a valuable cog in the machine, but one who was forced to go get a maximum-salaried contract offer elsewhere rather than being handed one as a matter of course; a gifted offensive player, but one best suited to a complementary role on a team of consequence — and one who has seen his touches, shot attempts and usage rate all dip since Durant’s arrival. He won’t outproduce Jokić in their head-to-head matchup; what he can do, though, is outwork him. This is how he wins … and, if he does, maybe how the Suns do, too.

Can Jamal Murray make the difference?

The argument for hand-waving the 2021 sweep as a defeat that can only be held against Jokić so much largely rests on the lack of help he had in that series — on the likelihood that, with all due respect to Campazzo, Rivers, Morris and Will Barton, any team leaning on them for consistent creation against a championship-level opponent was pretty much drawing dead, no matter how good its No. 1 option was.

Denver had to rely on that guard rotation because its No. 2 option had torn his ACL less than two months earlier; it would be 18 months until he returned to the court, followed by another couple of months of minutes restrictions, sitting out one end of back-to-back sets, and wondering whether he was well and truly “back.”

Now, though? Yeah … I’m thinking he’s back:

After returning from a six-game February siesta to rest his inflamed (and surgically repaired) right knee, Murray’s been locked and loaded, averaging a shade under 21 points, 7.5 assists and four rebounds per 36 minutes of floor time on 44/40/83 shooting after the All-Star break — not quite his bubble/pre-injury level of production, but not far off. He cranked it up a notch in Round 1, torching the Wolves to the tune of 27.2 points, 6.4 assists and 5.2 rebounds per game on 47/43/91 shooting in the five-game win, highlighted by a 40-ball in Game 2 and 35 in the Game 5 clincher.

Having Murray back in full form — as a facilitator on the ball and a shooter away from it, and as a hard-nosed and physical guard more than willing to set stiff screens on opposing bigs in the inverted pick-and-rolls with Jokić that tie defenses into pretzels — opens new worlds of offensive possibilities for Denver.

Murray is the closest thing Denver has to an answer to the Suns’ perimeter playmakers. Like them, he devours drop coverage: The Nuggets have scored just under 1.1 points per possession this season when Murray shoots out of the pick-and-roll against the drop or passes to a teammate who shoots, according to Second Spectrum — 15th out of 211 players to run at least 250 pick-and-rolls. Like them, he’s plenty capable of iso-hunting, too, pairing with Jokić to play the seek-and-destroy game, find a preferred matchup and roast it: The Nuggets have also scored just under 1.1 points per possession this season when Murray shoots against a switch or passes to a teammate who shoots — 14th out of that 211-player sample.

He’s a top-flight off-the-dribble shotmaker, ranking 15th in the NBA this season in pull-up 3-pointers and drilling them at a 39.3% clip, 10th-best among players to launch at least 100 triples off the bounce. If you press up on him to take away the jumper, he’ll put the ball on the deck; he was particularly aggressive attacking in Round 1, averaging more than 15 drives to the basket per game while balancing the hunt for his own offense (8.8 points per game on those forays) with the need to feed his teammates (2.2 assists per game off drives). And at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, Murray’s physical enough to create the space he needs even against bigger and stronger defenders — like, say, Craig or Josh Okogie, of whom he might see a steady diet in this series, or Booker, who’s coming off a sensational defensive series against the Clippers and playing the best two-way ball of his career.

Whoever draws the assignment, Murray has to punish them — get into their legs, make them chase him, make them feel him with his drives and screens, and make them pay for every inch of breathing room they give him. He’s got to be able to lighten the creative workload on Jokić when they share the court and shoulder it himself when the big fella sits in hopes of ensuring Denver doesn’t crater during his brief periods of rest; the Nuggets got outscored by 7.5 points per 100 in Murray/no-Jokić minutes during the regular season, according to PBP Stats, but were plus-11 in 41 such minutes against Minnesota in Round 1.

The Nuggets entered this season believing that the core they put together before Murray’s injury was good enough to compete for a championship when everybody was healthy and fully operational; they then spent the next five months offering evidence in support of that hypothesis. (The less said about Denver’s final month or so, once they all but had the No. 1 seed sewn up, the better.) Now it’s time to find out if their faith was warranted; no supporting player is more important to that project than Murray.