The Suns, who finished with the second-best record in the West in the regular season, defeated the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in six games during their first-round series. It was Phoenix’s first playoff series win since the 2009-10 season, which was also its last postseason appearance and when it advanced to the Western Conference Finals and fell to the Lakers.
Denver, which finished with the third-best record in the West at 47-25, beat the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers in six games. The Nuggets were led in that series by MVP candidate Nikola Jokic, who averaged 33.0 points, 10.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists on 52.8 percent shooting.
Despite injury issues with starting point guard Jamal Murray, who tore his left ACL in April, starting guard Will Barton, who suffered a right hamstring strain in late April and will not play in Game 1, and forward PJ Dozier, who has been out with an adductor strain since early May, the Nuggets are the only team that advanced to the conference finals last season that is still in the playoffs.
Ahead of Monday’s series opener, we caught up with Denver Stiffs beat writer Brandon Ewing about the latest on Denver, including his takeaways from its series win over Portland, team outlook without Murray and how starting forward Michael Porter Jr. has stepped up in Murray’s absence.
Here’s what Ewing had to say about the matchup.
1. What were your main takeaways from the Nuggets’ first-round win over the Trail Blazers?
The Nuggets’ bench unit being a pleasant surprise, led by the play of Monte Morris. Not only was Morris super impactful on both ends of the floor all series long, but he finally seemed to be 100 percent after suffering a couple of injuries throughout the regular season. Morris made some huge shots in crunch time to help the Nuggets get past the Trail Blazers and has done as good a job as possible trying to fill Jamal Murray’s shoes. Alongside Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr., Morris has become the Nuggets “third guy” for lack of a better term and should play a big role in this series as well.
2. Obviously, Nikola Jokic is having an MVP-caliber season and is so dominant with the way he sees the floor. From an overall perspective, what are some of the biggest improvements he has made this season?
Nikola Jokic has been dominant in every aspect of his game over the past few seasons, but this year he’s truly taken a step forward with his aggressiveness to score. In years past, Jokic would often pass too much and not look for his shot, but this year has been the opposite.
Jokic has looked to score a ton more, and ever since Jamal Murray went down, he’s stepped it up even more. When the Nuggets need a bucket, it feels like Jokic always finds a way to deliver. That aggression led him to an MVP-caliber season and the Nuggets to the second round, so hopefully he continues to look for his shot in this series and beyond because when he does he’s virtually unstoppable.
3. It was a devastating blow when Jamal Murray tore his left ACL in April, especially since the Nuggets won 17 of 20 games shortly before that. How has his absence affected the team, and what have been the pros and cons of Michael Porter Jr. stepping into a role as Denver’s No. 2 option?
It affected the team certainly at the beginning just because Murray is the heartbeat of this Nuggets group. One thing about the Nuggets in years past and specifically this year is they are a resilient group led by head coach Michael Malone. When the Nuggets have their backs against the wall, they find a way to get the job done and they have done just that since Murray went down.
As for Porter Jr., he’s stepped into his role as the Nuggets’ No. 2 guy perfectly and has done a great job not just improving as a scorer, but defensively as well. The only con is there’s been a lot of pressure on Porter to play well, but he’s had no issue handling that and continues to produce on both ends of the floor.
4. On the other side of that coin, coach Michael Malone has really steadied the ship for Denver, especially since Will Barton and PJ Dozier have also been out of late. In your opinion, is Denver still a championship-caliber team without Murray? If so, why is that?
I had my doubts coming into the playoffs just because I wasn’t sure the Nuggets had enough depth to get the job done. They put that worry to bed in their opening-round series against Portland, as they still found a way to beat the Trail Blazers in six games even while Damian Lillard was going nuclear every game. Denver is still a championship contender because of its belief in one another and its never give up attitude.
No matter what the situation is, it always feels like the Nuggets find a way to win, which they put on full display last year in the Bubble and since Murray went down this year. Also, when you have a superstar like Jokic on your team, you’re never out of a series, which makes them a constant championship contender.
5. What will be the biggest keys for the Nuggets in their series against the Suns?
Defending the 3-point line has to be the Nuggets’ main concern coming into this series. They did not do a great job of slowing down Portland’s offense from beyond the arc, and now they’re facing a Suns team that is phenomenal at shooting the three ball. Slowing down shooters like Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson is going to be a challenge for the Nuggets, but they have to find a way to at least make life difficult for them if they want to have success in this series.
6. Who will win this series, and in how many games?
I’ll take the Nuggets in 7 games because I like their experience in the playoffs over Phoenix. That was the only worry I had about the Suns against the Lakers, but they found a way to get the job done and prove a ton of people wrong. I think regardless of who wins, it’s going to be a fun series and no matter who wins, they’ll have a great chance of advancing to the NBA Finals.