The Phoenix Suns put on a show on Monday night as they defeated the Denver Nuggets by a score of 122-105. The crowd was jumping, both Jimmy Eat World and Torrey Craig were jamming, and we were all loving it. Unless you don’t know who Jimmy Eat World is. In their first Western Conference Semifinals appearance since a 111-102 victory over the Spurs in 2010, the Suns played smart basketball and then exploded.
While the Suns had a stellar second half, constructing a 42-14 run at one point, there are still plenty of opportunities for this team to take note of and numerous and improvements to be made. Prior to the offensive explosion, Phoenix was down 10 points to Denver. Mike Malone made appropriate halftime adjustments. The game plan that they had deployed was working, even while their MVP in Nikola Jokić was not.
The Suns answered those adjustments in spectacular fashion. They put together a stretch in which they shot 17-of-22 from the field; a cool 77.2%. A run like that will make up any deficit and propel your team to victory. The exclamation point came when Cameron Payne lobbed the leather to Torrey Craig for a wham-bam-slam.
It was a fun night for the Phoenix Suns and their fans. As we prepare for Game 2 on Wednesday, a match that will certainly see numerous adjustments from the Nuggets, let’s look at what we can take away from Game 1.
Ayton held the Joker in check
It’d be criminal not to start with the performance of Deandre Ayton against the sure-fire MVP candidate Nikola Jokić. Finesse met physicality on Monday night and DA was locked in trying to deter the Joker from being comfortable. Ayton did all of this while executing the most important key to the game: avoiding foul trouble.
Ayton ended the night with 1 personal foul. Jokić, who averaged 4.8 free throw attempts per game this season, ended the night with 0 attempts from the line. I would expect somewhat of a market correction in Game 2 as Jokić is a player who knows how to work the referees. It just didn’t go his way on Monday night.
Jokić has had issues with Ayton in the past. This season alone the Serbian center shot 13-of-34 (38%), was blocked twice, had three turnovers, and shot zero free throws when guarded by Ayton during the regular season. That trend continued in Game 1 as, on plays in which DA guarded the Joker, he went 5-of-14 (35.7%) and had 1 turnover.
Nikola Jokic when guarded by Deandre Ayton tonight:— The Valley Stats ☀️ (@TheValleyStats) June 8, 2021
5-14 FG (.357)
Ayton when guarded by Jokic tonight:
6-8 FG (.750)
0 turnovers pic.twitter.com/rB2QZYyIlZ
“Playing our coverages, studying team tendencies and what they like,” Ayton said of the matchup, “we just stuck to the game plan and never stopped what we thought and what we went over. Just kept pursuing, just kept — even when they scored, we just kept our discipline and did what we have to do on our coverages.”
We did not see Jokić attack in this game in a physical manner. The majority of his shots were three-pointers (2-of-5), fall away jumpers, or interior post moves away from the basket. Credit Ayton for not allowing Jokić to get comfortable and in aggression mode. He bodied him up without fouling to the point that the Joker looked fatigued by the end of the game.
When you force the opposing team’s best player to shoot 23 times to score 22 points, all while the man defending him goes for 20 points on 13 shots, you consider that a win for your team. Add the aggressiveness in which Ayton attacked the basket, like on this early pick-and-roll play with Chris Paul, and you are playing with house money.
The fact that Deandre attacked the rim rather than passing out of the play or settling for a jump shot showcases his mindset entering the season. He is engaged, as he typically is when he faces Jokić. The backdrop of the playoffs intensifies the need for Ayton to be effective and in Game 1 he delivered.
Adjustments will be made in Game 2, believe you me. Nikola will be more aggressive, looking to put the Suns and the referees in compromising situations. DA will have to continue to play smart and play vertical. He’ll have to continue to get out and run, forcing Jokić to follow suit. Ayton neutralized the Joker in Game 1; I expect the Joker to punch back.
Kudos to Ayton. It is no easy task to do what he did.
Attack Austin Rivers
Nuggets’ fans are surely missing the services of Will Barton and P.J. Dozier. Barton, who hasn’t played a game since April 23, is currently out with hamstring issues. Dozier has been out since May 5 with an abductor strain. Spelling their absence is the NBA journeyman Austin Rivers. And he is who the Suns plan on targeting.
Entering the series, we knew the Suns backcourt should trump that of the Nuggets. Devin Booker took it to Rivers in the early stages of the game, putting together some Kobe-esque moves to earn his points. Credit to Rivers: there is no better defense you could play than he did on the following play. Booker is just better.
The Nuggets started the third quarter on a 9-1 run, padding their lead to 9 points, as their defensive intensity increased. Denver made it a point to guard Booker with the more physical Aaron Gordon. He pushed him off of his spots and, due to his length, made life harder for the All Star guard. Booker scored just 3 points with Gordon on him on 1-of-3 shooting.
The team, however, scored 31 as the Suns took advantage of another matchup.
Taking away Booker for the beginning stages of the second half seemed to be working as the Suns were having a hard time connecting on shots. With the switch to Gordon onto Booker, that meant Austin Rivers would have the task of guarding Mikal Bridges.
The Suns adjusted accordingly.
They began feeding Bridges and taking advantage of the mismatch. The length and quickness of Mikal was tough for Rivers to defend. Mikal put together the next 8 points for the Phoenix Suns during a vital stretch in which the game could have gotten out of hand. Due to his efforts, the Suns were only down 6.
Austin Rivers finished the game with a 136 defensive rating, the worst of any Nuggets starters. I had noted in my Series Preview piece that he was the 40th of 48 guards who have started in the playoffs in this area and he held the mantle again on Monday night.
Denver head coach Mike Malone said prior to the game, “There is a chance that he (Barton) could play, and maybe, there is a chance that PJ Dozier at some point in this series will be available as well.” I’m sure Nuggets fans are praying for this to occur.
When Barton and/or Dozier returns, expect Rivers to take a seat and assume the role he thrives in: bench disruptor. Any game he plays in as a starter is a clear advantage for the Suns.
Rally the Valley
If the arena is a-rockin’, please come a-knockin’!
I just wanted to give a quick shout out to the way the fans in this city have lived up the team’s tagline. They have rallied. I was present for Game 5 in the first round and it was a sight to see. Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals appeared to be even more chaotic as the crowd of over 16,000 in attendance was going absolutely bananas.
The fans watching in their homes or at the bars thrive off of that energy. The team thrives off of that energy. And it truly plays a part in the success of this team.
The 51-win regular season has granted the Suns the chance to have home court advantage during the first two rounds of the playoffs. You can’t tell me it didn’t matter. Chris Paul stated, “I told the guys, ‘This is why we fought so hard during the regular season to get home court advantage.’ And I think we truly have that with our fanbase here.”
What adjustments need to be made for Game 2? I don’t know how, but get louder Phoenix!
Chris Paul looks healthy
Praise be to whatever god, spiritual being, or rock you believe in. Entering the series, knowing that Chris Paul had a couple of extra days to treat his ailing right shoulder, we all hoped that he would appear healthier. He only scored in double-digits once in the first round matchup against the Lakers. And we still won.
All of that was put to rest in Game 1. The Point God scored 21 points and had 11 assists. 14 of those points came in the fourth quarter. Most importantly was the manner in which he scored those points. His mid-range jumper was once again deadly, a shot we hadn’t seen him consistently take and make since prior to his injury.
Paul picked apart the Denver defense all game long via the pick-and-roll. He used high screens to his advantage throughout. When the wing stayed with him, he moved the ball out of the pocket to either the roller or the perimeter, depending on how the Nuggets defense collapsed on the roller. When the big man stayed with him, we went into “I’m gonna toy with you’’ mode.
When Chris Paul is making step back three-pointers from the left elbow, you know his shoulder is feeling much, much better.
Phoenix is a different beast for Denver. Remember that they just played 6 games against the Portland Trail Blazers. Dame Lillard and company more often than not would use screens to set up a 30-foot deep ball for Lillard rather than use ball movement to create mismatches. Denver will adjust. I expect more traps to be thrown at Paul and more physicality, although Facundo Campazzo did his best to pester Paul in this game.
It’s good to see Paul back in form. The Suns are going to need it if they want to continue to Slug the Nuggs.
The Suns balanced offensive attack
In the previous series against the Lakers, the Suns won the way most teams do in the playoffs: behind the strength of their stars. Devin Booker scored 30 points a night, Ayton chipped in 15.8 points and 10.7 boards, and the Suns dispatched the defending champs. Every game had a different role player assisting to the victory, whether it be Jae Crowder’s 17-point Game 4 or Cameron Payne’s 16-point Game 5.
Looking at last night’s box score, the Suns were fantastically balanced on offense. No starter shot less than 12 times or more than 14 times, and 4 of the 5 ended with 20+ points:
- Chris Paul: 8-14, 21 points
- Devin Booker: 8-12, 21 points
- Mikal Bridges: 8-12, 23 points
- Jae Crowder: 5-13, 14 points
- Deandre Ayton: 9-13, 20 points
99 of the Suns’ 122 points came from their starting five. They posted a 54.6 FG%. It is difficult to trap Booker or Paul when the other players are knocking down their shots.
I do not expect to see such balance in every game of this series, but opening Game 1 in this manner does make it harder for the Nuggets to adjust. In looking at the box score, if you were a Nuggets fan, you have to identify who to stop. If you focus on that player, others have the opportunity to step up. In Game 1, they did.
The other side of this is that the Suns bench was balanced as well when compared to Denver’s. Sure, they did their part. Again, that Cam Payne to Torrey Craig play brought the house down.
The Denver bench (ranked 27th in the league during the regular season relative to points scored) was matched by that of the Suns. Through the first three quarters, it was14 points for each bench. Balance.
Moving forward in the series, the chess match will intensify. The physicality will as well. You cannot expect that Monte Morris, the Nuggets third leading scorer in the Portland series, to go 1-for-10 from the field in every game. You cannot expect Nikola Jokić to take fadeaways for the entire series. You can expect the Aaron Gordon/Devin Booker matchup to increase.
It was a great performance by the Suns in Game 1. They were pushed into the corner yet maintained their composure. When the three ball wasn’t falling, they attacked the mid-range and interior — which Denver did not do when they were pushed into a corner...they started jacking up three’s. We have a long way to go in this series. Monday was a great start though.