“By the time I was on the plane I was already watching Denver for the next series,” head coach Monty Williams said on Saturday to the media.
Williams and the players are excited about the uprising of casual fans around the valley — Mikal Bridges says it’s great to be recognized by name these days rather than just pointed to because of his height — but they have not had time to get out into the community yet to really soak it up.
Williams in particular says the only places he goes are the arena, the airport and home. He was grateful to see a big GO SUNS banner on his entry gate to his community the other night when he drove home at 2 in the morning.
“Before I got here, I didn’t know Phoenix as a big sports city,” forward Mikal Bridges, a native of Philadelphia, said. “But now man, you can just tell. You know it’s a real sports city when they get on you when you play well and they getting on you a little bit. That’s what you need. I’m happy that our fan base in like that, they really truly care. I didn’t know, especially when I got here, that it could get like this.”
But make no mistake, the Suns are not ‘happy on the farm’ with a single series win, even if that win was over the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. My own father, who I am visiting this weekend in Pinetop, chuckled as he told me he had to check himself on Friday because “it feels like they already won the whole thing”.
On the contrary, the Suns have only made one more step on their journey.
“Coach always says, don’t ever take it for granted,” Mikal Bridges said. “Our goal is that much bigger, it’s not just to advance out of the first round.”
The Suns have been talking all year about winning the whole thing, the NBA Championship, long before many of us took them seriously.
Now, with a convincing first round win over the Lakers under their belt after leading the NBA this regular season is road wins, clutch wins and wins over eventual playoff teams, the Suns are ready to prove their mettle on the next rung up the ladder.
And next up is the Denver Nuggets.
The Nuggets made a surprising run to the Conference Finals last year, succumbing to a healthier Lakers squad, and return to the playoffs a year later with even more confidence in themselves.
Center Nikola Jokic is the far and away frontrunner for Most Valuable Player, reminding old-timers of a young Euro center Arvidas Sabonis from the late 80s/early 90s who can pass, shoot and outthink just about anyone at any time.
While Luka Doncic gets most of the headlines for this, the 7-foot Serbian nearly averaged a 30-point triple double of his own this season (26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, 8.3 assists per game). He’s unstoppable despite his lumbering demeanor. He often makes jokes at his own expense at how slow he plays because he simply can’t run like those other guys. Of course those comments are often after wins.
The Suns Deandre Ayton will have his hands full against Jokic. He is the only Suns player who can match Jokic’s size, which is supremely necessary to cut off vision for passing lanes. Jokic is the Nuggets primary playmaker from the high and low post, confounding defenses on a nightly basis.
But Ayton has held his own against Jokic so far, despite the Suns winning only 2 of 7 games so far in their careers when both play. When they match up, their numbers are uncannily similar in terms of points, rebounds and blocks.
However, the discrepancy in assists is what truly sets these players apart. Jokic is the Nuggets defacto point guard, while Ayton is primarily a roller and finisher.
Of course, the Lakers found out you can’t beat the Suns with just one guy no matter how dangerous he is.
What’s different about this year’s Nuggets team is that Jamal Murray — the bonafide Suns killer — is out for the year with a knee injury. Now all the other players have to climb up a rung to support Jokic.
The new No. 2 on the team is Michael Porter Jr. The super-long shooter is the Nuggets second-leading scorer at right around 20 points per game. Due to a back injury that looked like it might be chronic, he was originally drafted 15th overall in the 2018 Draft behind Ayton (No. 1) and Bridges (No. 10) despite profiling as a top-5 player in one of the best drafts since LeBron’s 2003 Draft.
“Teams didn’t trust who he was going to be,” Bridges says. “But everybody else knew, hoopers knew, exactly what he was going to be.”
Bridges will probably be the Suns primary defender on Porter who, despite his 6’10” height, plays like a shooting guard most of the time in that he runs off screens to get space to rise up for an unblockable bomb. On the same night Devin Booker had 22 in the first quarter of the close-out game for the Suns, MPJ had 20 in the first quarter of Denver’s close-out game over the Trail Blazers.
“He’s being aggressive and taking advantage of the opportunity right now,” Bridges says. “He’s playing really well. All he really needs is a little bit of space. You just try to clog it up a little bit more.”
The Nuggets are deep, with players upon players just like the Suns. They are missing three of their top five guards due to injury (though all but Murray might be back soon), but still beat the Blazers with big contributions from guards like Facundo Campazzo, Austin Rivers, Monte Morris and Markus Howard.
“They all do their part, they play aggressive,” Bridges says of the Nuggets bench units.
The Nuggets guards are much smaller and faster than the Lakers’ were, making Bridges and Torrey Craig’s roles even bigger this series than last series. We might even see a good amount of Jevon Carter this series.
But Denver is paint-hogging team, for sure, even without Murray now, with Jokic, Paul Millsap and JaMychael Green in the middle and Jokic setting up cutters on nearly every play.
“They’ve done a really good job attacking the paint,” Williams says of watching film on the Nuggets. “They got 80 points in the paint in one game against us. We have our hands full in a number of areas.”
The next round will be very difficult for the Suns, just in different ways than the Lakers were. The Nuggets are faster and they score a lot more, but don’t play as good on defense as the league-leading Lakers.
Watch out for lots of previewing on Bright Side ahead of Monday night’s opening game!