Not because the upcoming matchup between the Phoenix Suns and the Denver Nuggets that commences on Monday night is a terrifying matchup. I’m scared because, on the surface, it isn’t. For the first time in nearly 15 years, I have confidence as the Suns embark on a postseason series. And truthfully I don’t know how to deal with it.
When you look at the Denver Nuggets, a team that won only four fewer games than the Suns (47-25), you instantly are drawn to the MVP candidate Nikola Jokic and his abilities on the court. On the outside, the 6’11” center from Serbia is not imposing. Not in the way LeBron James and Anthony Davis were in the previous series. What he lacks in physicality he more than makes up for with his technique, court vision, and basketball intelligence.
Yet outside of Jokic, the roster is one Phoenix matches up well against. Sure, they have a rising star in Michael Porter, Jr. and former slighted dunk contestant in Aaron Gordon, but Facundo Campazzo and Austin Rivers make up their backcourt. Advantage Suns, right?
In preparation for the upcoming series, it’s time to compare the rosters. My expectation in comparing the teams is to temper my expectations and bring me off of the high beating the Lakers has provided. By analyzing these two teams side-by-side, we’ll see that this series will be much closer than many initially have predicted.
Facundo Campazzo vs. Chris Paul
The Point God’s health is obviously the primary factor in this matchup. We’ll continue to monitor his right shoulder in hopes that the stinger-esque injury does not become reaggravated. If it stays attached to his arm you give this matchup to Phoenix. You can’t dismiss Campazzo, however, as he is a player who hustles and pesters, annoys and flusters.
Campazzo is a 30 year-old rookie who has cut his teeth playing internationally in the EuroLeague, Spanish League, and Argentine League. The 5’10” Argentinian has won multiple international championships and medals. He is a competitor who is taking advantage of the opportunity he has been provided.
Both Paul and Campazzo have locked horns before during international play in 2012, and things got chippy between the two.
It will be an aggressive matchup throughout the series. Like he did in late-January, expect Chris Paul to use his technique in an effort to create his own scoring when Campazzo is guarding him.
Austin Rivers vs. Devin Booker
From a talent standpoint, this is a clear advantage for the Suns. Devin Booker is a young superstar in the making, leaving his footprint on the 2021 NBA Playoffs and etching his name into the minds of the casual fans who only watch this time of year.
In his first playoff series of his career, against the defending NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers, he averaged 29.7 points on 48.8/42.9/93.8 splits. He scored 47 points on 22 shots in a close out game on the road. He shined brighter than the lights that were upon him.
Conversely, Rivers has become a journeyman in the NBA. The 9th-year guard was without a job after being waived by the Oklahoma City Thunder on March 28. Had it not been for the unfortunate injury to Jamal Murray on April 4, he most likely would be watching the playoffs from his couch. Sometimes the greatest ability is availability, and he was ready and waiting to assist a team in need of a two guard.
What Rivers lacks in consistency relative to being on a team — he’s played for 6 in 9 years — he makes up for in confidence. The son of legendary NBA player/coach Doc Rivers, Austin carries a chip on his shoulder and believes he belongs on the court. He’s the former #2 overall high school prospect and Duke University standout.
Rivers shot 48.4% from deep in the Portland series and put together a big Game 3, scoring 21 points on 5-for-10 from beyond the arc. He can be pesky on defense as well. At 6’4” he does not carry the same length that the Lakers threw at Devin Booker, but similar to Campazzo he has a high motor and will try to fluster Booker defensively.
That being said, Rivers will be easier for Devin Booker to dominate. Out of the 48 different guards who have started in the playoffs thus far this year, Rivers ranks 40th with a 127.0 defensive rating. Yes, guarding Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum will do that to you. The opportunity to smoke Rivers will be present for Booker. He just needs to execute.
Michael Porter Jr. vs. Mikal Bridges
This will be one of the most exciting matchups of this series. For once Mikal Bridges will guard someone in his “range”, if you will, someone who is not the best opposing guard or someone who outweighs him by 60+ pounds. Porter has about 15 pounds on Bridges, yes, and 4 inches in height. But Bridges’ length and lateral quickness will make up for that. The defensive ability of Bridges versus the offensive prowess of Porter will be an impelling watch.
This could be the beginning of a matchup we could see for years to come. Both Bridges and Porter are alumni of the 2018 NBA Draft.
Although he hasn’t grown into his body as of yet, he still has the size and length that can come up big on the boards. Denver gives up size in the backcourt, their frontcourt is larger than Phoenix. Bridges will have to do his part boxing out and preventing Porter from snatching offensive rebounds.
I expect to see plenty of switches in an attempt to free up MPJ. How the Suns respond to the Nuggets secondary scorer will be vital to their success as a team. Porter will take his shots. The Suns need to focus on quality contests. In the series against the Portland Trail Blazers, 8-for-26 (30.8%) on three-pointers with tight or very tight defense. On open and wide open shots he shot 9-for-15 (60.0%).
Don’t let him shoot open three-pointers.
Aaron Gordon vs. Jae Crowder
The last time Phoenix played the Nuggets, Aaron Gordon was a member of the Orlando Magic. Since arriving in Denver, Gordon scored 10.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, and shot 50% from the field. That includes his 26.6 3PT%. He’s 6’8”. He’s 235 pounds. Crowder doesn’t give much size to Gordon at 6’6”/235, but he does give up athleticism.
I believe this matchup will be the x-factor in the series.
Gordon is a player who, at times, disappears on the court. He is the third scoring option from the starting unit, however, so you cannot discount his impact on the game. Denver may try high screens with Campazzo in an effort to create a mismatch of Chris Paul on Aardon Gordon. Crowder’s ability to fight through those screens and negate Gordon’s effectiveness will be big.
Aaron Gordon’s impact will be felt on the boards. He averaged 6.5 rebounds in the previous series versus the Blazers including 2.5 on the offensive glass. 42.7% of his shots came in the paint.
Looking through the lens of advanced metrics, Gordon had his worst season of his career from a defensive rating standpoint. He posted a 114. Much akin to the Lakers series, if the Suns can draw him into the paint and off of Jae Crowder on offense, the Bossman will have open looks at the rim from downtown.
In the Suns’ two losses against the Lakers in the Western Conference First Round, Jae Crowder shot 15.3% from deep. In their four wins? 36.3%. That includes 0-for-7 in Game 1. Jae will find himself open as Gordon tries to make an interior defensive impact. If he knocks down the open shots, the Suns win. If can neutralize Gordon on the offensive glass, the Suns win.
Nikola Jokic vs. Deandre Ayton
Deandre Ayton looked fantastic in the previous series, surprising those who doubted him all season. His reward for a stellar first round performance? The guy who is going to win the MVP. Jokic is unstoppable, let’s just start there. He is going to do what he wants to do. It’s a matter of trying to negate one facet of his game and hope it works in your favor.
That facet needs to be his passing.
Running isolation with Ayton on Jokic is the best strategy for success. If you begin to throw double teams at him, not only will he pick you apart with his precision passing, he’ll create opportunities for his teammates to cook. Let the Joker get his 35 and prevent his teammates from gaining confidence. Easier said than done.
I’m looking forward to seeing how Ayton responds to this matchup. He has played Jokic well in their previous matchups this season.
This is why it’s Suns in 5 vs Nuggets without Jamal Murray. Deandre Ayton is key. pic.twitter.com/veGiph9suL— AZ Guy (@AZ_Guy6) June 4, 2021
Deandre Ayton will have to avoid getting into foul trouble. He fouled out in the January 23 game and Jokic shot the ball 14 times from the line. Jokic is a foul baiter. Suns fans: be ready. He flops his arms around like a turkey with a broken wing. And he is always looking to the referees with the same wonderment Tim Duncan used to. He pushes with his off arm on offense in an attempt to create space. He knows the tricks and uses them to his advantage. Ayton can’t fall for the pump fakes and has to stay vertical. Nikola will try the rip-through to earn a trip to the line as well.
Again, there is no stopping Jokic. With Ayton, however, the Suns can neutralize him as much as you can. Ayton’s ability on the glass will be huge as he can score much needed second-chance points. Will he rise to the moment once again? I’m excited to see it and thankful he has the opportunity.
Nuggets Bench vs. Suns Bench
This is where I gain some confidence. Monte Morris scored 15.3 points in the series against the Blazers coming off of the pine. That is where the Nuggets won the series: their bench outscored the Blazers bench by 10.7 points per game in the series.
But the Suns bench, both offensively and defensively, is much better than Portland’s. During the regular season, the Nuggets scored 32.2 points from their second unit. That was 27th in the league. Phoenix scored 37.0 points, good for 14th.
The Nuggets bench includes the above-mentioned Morris, and (based on their rotations in the last series) F JaMychal Green, F Paul Milsap, and G Markus Howard. Former Sun Shaq Harrison received some playing time as well. What do you see when you look at those names? I see not a ton of size. And I see Dario Saric having an opportunity to have an impact on this series.
I am a noted Dario lover. I understand his performance has faltered since, well, the Bubble, but his effectiveness in connecting the second-team unit can be a huge plus for the Suns. I won’t forget the first round: 3.7 points, 1.7 rebounds, 2.0 fouls in three games played. The Lakers were too big for Dario to be effective. Denver is not.
Monte Morris is their Cameron Payne; their spark plug off of the bench. Perhaps a little Jevon Carter to wear him down? It is a lever I am sure Monty Williams will pull if Payne is not doing the job defensively on Morris that he should be. But I expect Payne to continue his aggressive ways on both ends of the court.
Torrey Craig’s presence is valuable as well. The former Denver Nugget not only will match up well with Paul Millsap and/or JaMychal Green, he has knowledge of the system and plays that head coach Mike Malone likes to call. Each team will learn each other’s sets during a series, but to have an inside understanding prior to the beginning? Take any advantage that you can get.
Looking at the Nuggets previous round statistics — Denver had an offensive rating of 123.4 and a defensive rating of 122.1 — you can’t get too carried away. The Portland Trail Blazers entered the series with the 29th defensive rating in the NBA. While the Blazers’ offense had the second best offensive rating in the Association this year, and they built early leads against the Nuggets, their defense allowed Denver to climb back in the games and ultimately win the series.
The roster of the Nuggets is not overly imposing. But what Denver did take away from their previous series was an increase in confidence. This team is a better shooting team than the Lakers.
Denver on Wide-Open 3s: 39/81 - 48.1%— Dom Tesoriero (@dom_tesoriero) June 6, 2021
Lakers on Wide-Open 3s: 34/106 - 32.1%
Denver on Open 3s: 35/88 - 39.8%
Lakers on Open 3s: 20/73 - 27.4%
Completely different defensive game now. Not helping when DA is on Jokic and staying home on shooters might be the initial go
Writing this piece has reminded me that this will be a battle. On the surface, sure, it looks like a Suns win. As you dig deeper, however, you can see that the MVP-led Nuggets are in this series for numerous reasons.
This is a team that knows how to win. They went to the Western Conference Finals last season. They were down 3-1 to the Jazz in the first round before winning in 7, then down 3-1 to the Clippers. They won in 7 as well on their way to the WCF. Their experience and intangibles are dangerous. They should be respected.
All of that being said, Suns in 5.