When: 7:00 p.m. AZ Time
Where: Footprint Center
Listen: 98.7 FM
The road to defending a Western Conference Championship and completing work left unfinished last season begins tonight for the Phoenix Suns at the Footprint Center. The team returns 12 players from last year, all who felt the agonizing defeat of losing in the NBA Finals after being up 2-0. The motivation is there. The talent is there. The leadership is there.
Their opponent is familiar, and you best believe they are hungry for a small sense of revenge following a thrashing in the Western Conference Semifinals last season. Yes, the Denver Nuggets might be down Jamal Murray, but losing a series 0-4 will surely motivate them to play their best basketball in front of a national audience.
Get used to similar storylines throughout the 2021-22 season. The Suns aren’t taking opponents by surprise this year. There will be no ‘load management’ games when Phoenix is in town. This team has a target on their back and the opposition will be up for every game. Make no mistake about it: the national media might not believe in Phoenix, but their opponents do.
Let the grind begin.
Probable Starting Lineups
- Dario Saric (knee) is OUT
- Jamal Murray (knee) is OUT
What to Watch
All eyes will be on Deandre Ayton on Wednesday night, and it isn’t simply due to botched a contract extension. He will face off against the reigning league MVP in Nikola Jokic. It was a battle that played out last year in the playoffs with Ayton getting the better of the matchup.
How did Ayton fare against arguably the best center in the league a season ago? Here is how Jokic performed last season when guarded by Ayton:
- Regular Season: 13-of-34 FG (38.2%), 29 points, 17 assists, 3 turnovers in 25:53 minutes guarded
- Playoffs: 25-of-61 FG (41.0%), 56 points, 16 assists, 5 turnovers in 36:51 minutes guarded
No matter how you slice it, those are not MVP-like numbers from Jokic. He was held in check by Ayton, who possesses both the size and maneuverability that can (and did) create issues for the Serbian big man.
Now let’s look at Ayton’s numbers when guarded by Jokic;
- Regular Season: 14-of-23 (60.9%), 30 points, 2 assists, 3 turnovers in 28:49 minutes guarded
- Playoffs: 17-of-27 (63.0%), 34 points, 1 assist, 3 turnovers in 34:18 minutes guarded
The story here? Deandre Ayton plays well on both sides of the ball when he sees Jokic standing across from him on the hardwood. He isn’t an offensive juggernaut, but when Nikola is his opposing center, Ayton accepts the challenge and exceeds expectations. It was his performances against the Nuggets in the Western Conference Semifinals last season that some believed garnered him a maximum extension entering this season.
Keys to a Suns Win
Denver, like Phoenix, is bringing back the majority of the roster that navigated the postseason just 4 months ago. They possess experience, depth, and a winning pedigree. It will be their mission to upset the Suns home opener and silence the crowd at the Footprint Center.
The Suns won’t let that happen.
Phoenix swept the Nuggets last postseason for a reason: they were simply the better team. The exploitation of Michael Porter, Jr. on defense, the matchup on the Joker with Ayton, the guard play; it’s all a plus for the Suns. Sure, it isn’t Facundo Campazzo starting for the Nuggs, but Devin Booker and Chris Paul are much, much better than Monte Morris and Will Barton.
Phoenix will score constantly and consistently as we are introduced to a stellar second team unit. Phoenix wins easily.
Suns 119, Nuggets 107