The Western Conference semifinal matchup between the Denver Nuggets and Phoenix Suns has the potential to be an explosive offensive battle. The Nuggets and Suns split the season series 2-2, but ultimately it means little to nothing because it was before the trade deadline.
In the first round vs. Wolves, the Nuggets were able to win a surprisingly close five-game series. The re-emergence of “Playoff Jamal,” was a huge boost for a Denver team who undoubtedly missed him in their last two playoff series. Murray’s smooth and timely shotmaking will be crucial for the Nuggets vs. the Suns.
Despite the great play of Denver offensively in the series, apart from Game 1, the Nuggets had trouble guarding a depleted Minnesota team. The Wolves were without two key scoring pieces in Naz Reid and Jaden McDaniels. But even without these two, Denver allowed Anthony Edwards to average 32 points per game during the first round. It’s evident their defense poses massive question marks.
In a similar story, Phoenix won in five games vs. the LA Clippers where they also were great offensively. Devin Booker put on a scoring clinic every game and Kevin Durant was his reliable self. But the win in five games doesn’t tell the whole story.
The Suns were aided massively when Clippers star forward Kawhi Leonard was ruled out for the remaining three games of the series. This was after Phoenix dodged another blow when LA forward Paul George was reported to miss the entire series before the first game. And even with the absence of Leonard and George, the Suns (like the Nuggets) had serious trouble defensively. They allowed the Clippers to put up 115.6 points per game during the series.
Both the Nuggets and Suns have similar concerns. Both are great offensively and questionable defensively. Both have virtually no bench and a star coming off a major injury. So who comes out on top?
What the Suns-Nuggers series will come down to
The Nuggets have homecourt advantage in this series which is a huge benefit because this will be a close one.
The free-flowing movement offense of Denver, with Jokic spearheading every play, will be tough to beat. The Joker has been great so far these playoffs and the play of Murray and MPJ down the stretch will be something the Nuggets will need more of vs Phoenix.
The major concern for Denver is how they will defend the constant pick-and-roll spam the Suns will throw at them. Phoenix’s four star players all love to get to the midrange, and they have plenty of PnR looks to throw at Denver. The usual drop coverage scheme the Nuggets run with Jokic is a far-from-ideal match-up this time around. Denver should look to force Chris Paul and Ayton to initiate much of these actions and bait them into beating them rather than Booker and Durant.
For Phoenix, offensively this series will have no trouble. Defensively they must keep Jokic under wraps. The beauty of Nikola’s game is how he gets others involved for open looks. The Suns would be advised to make him a scorer and reduce the impact he has making his teammates better. This is a similar tactic Golden State used in round 1 last playoffs vs Denver, which resulted in a five-game loss. The difference this time around is that Murray and MPJ are back, but the logic should be the same.
The two key players I see in this series are Chris Paul and Jamal Murray. If Chris Paul provides a consistent 12-15 points and gets his stars in the right spots, it’ll go a long way to helping the Suns. If Murray maintains his stellar play and gives Jokic the offensive help he needs, then I give the edge to the Nuggets.
Ultimately I think the Phoenix pick-and-roll offensive will be too much to handle for Denver. Furthermore, I believe the Suns will neutralize Jokic’s playmaking impact, and lock in for stops when they need them.
My pick: Suns in 7