When: 6:30 PM AZ / Pacific Time
Where: Phoenix Suns Arena
Watch: Bally Sports Arizona and TNT
Listen: 98.7 FM
After admitting they played soft, even a bit scared, amid the deafening pandemonium of the Suns fans in the nearly-full arena on Monday night, you can expect the Denver Nuggets to come in with a much stronger mindset in Game 2.
The Nuggets are veterans of the NBA Playoffs. They know what a hyped-up sold out playoff crowd sounds like. But it’s been two years since they had to experience it. In last year’s playoff run, there were no fans at all. In last week’s first round, neither the Nuggets or Memphis crowds exceeded 10,000. So you can understand their shock at the crescendo of cheers from 16,000 Suns fans.
Turn on the sound here.
The crowd helped the Suns go on a 42-14 run as the Nuggets devolved into a tentative mess.
They promise to handle the crowd better in Game 2, and then enjoy their own near-full capacity this weekend for Games 3 and 4.
Sounds like a challenge to me, Suns fans!
Probable Starting Lineups
Don’t be surprised if Monte Morris jumps into the starting rotation in Facundo Campazzo’s place after Chris Paul kind of punked him in Game 1. Campazzo might have more success against Payne than CP3.
- Michael Porter Jr. (back tightness) is QUESTIONABLE, but coach Malone said Porter is almost certain to play
- Will Barton (hamstring) is DOUBTFUL, but coach Malone said it’s possible he will activated for game 2
- P.J. Dozier (adductor) and Jamal Murray (knee) are OUT
- Abdel Nader (knee) is OUT
Stat me, Dave
Deandre Ayton has been quietly spectacular in his first playoffs. Not only has he been sublime on defense, running the floor and setting picks, things that don’t make the stat sheet, he’s also stuffing that sheet.
Ayton has five double-doubles through his first seven career playoff games and four of them have been 20/10 double-doubles! Since 2000, according to Stathead, Ayton joins Nikola Jokić (4), Anthony Davis (6) and Chris Paul (4) as the only players to record 20/10 performances at least 4 times in their first 7 career playoff games.
Here’s another: Devin Booker has the third-most points scored in his first seven playoff games (199) since LeBron James in 2006. Oh, and he’s the ONLY player who’s scored 20+ on 50/41/90 splits in his first seven playoff games since stats started being tracked in 1982. He’s not doing this against a trash defense either. The Lakers were No. 1 all season, with or without AD.
These young Suns are pretty good.
*data from basketball-reference.com
The Nuggets have to make some fundamental adjustments in their approach beyond just being more aggressive as a team, or they will be down 0-2 before heading back up the hill to altitude.
What adjustments can the Nuggets make?
Jokić plays like an MVP
Nikola Jokić has won the Most Valuable Player award, as voted by the media, in a landslide and he quite deserves it. He’s an uber-skilled big man who nearly averages a 30-point triple double and carried the Nuggets to the third best record in the West.
In Game 2, you can expect Jokić to come out strong and tireless in Game 2 after fading badly in the second half of Game 1. Dude doesn’t look like it, but he’s got some of the best stamina in the league. He once played almost every minute of a double overtime game and was dominant to close out. On Monday, he had 15 points and 7 rebounds in the first half, but only 7 points and 2 rebounds in the second half as he looked exhausted. Don’t expect to ever see that drop off again.
Starting in Game 2, expect Jokić to play a lot more aggressive as a high-post playmaker rather than the rim-runner he was in Game 1. He’s the smartest, or second-smartest, guy on the whole court and needs to take control in some space. Jokić led the Nuggets in assists this year, averaging nearly as many as the Suns Chris Paul (8.3 to 8.9), and needs to become that guy again.
As our friend Ryan Blackburn of DenverStiffs.com told us, Jokić is 2-5 in game ones but 5-2 in series overall — meaning game one doesn’t mean a lot to him.
But the Joker needs some help
To beat the Suns in Game 2, Jokić will need some help from the two best scorers in his lineup since Murray went down.
Michael Porter Jr. had a really bad second half after suffering the effects of a tight back. He scored 10 points in the opening quarter, but only scored 5 points the rest of the game. He did not play much in the second half. He’s gotten round the clock treatment since then, and coach Michael Malone says Porter will be ready to play Game 2. Porter is the Nuggets 2nd leading scorer with 23 points and 6.9 rebounds per game since Murray went down.
Coach Malone also said he’s hoping to have Will Barton ready for Game 2 as well. His healthy return would be a big boost to the Nuggets back court. Barton, 6’6”, is a more rangy player that can switch and defend better against the Suns than the smaller guards who muddled through the first round and the start of the second round. Barton is the Nuggets 4th-leading scorer this season — 3rd without Murray with a stat line of 13.7 points, 3.6 assists and 3.2 rebounds between Murray going down and Barton’s own injury (10 games).
And finally, the Suns cannot expect Monte Morris to go 1-10 again. Morris is lethal when he’s on a roll, and the Suns have seen it first-hand this season alone. I would expect him to get more minutes in Game 2 and be ready to deliver. The Jokić-Morris pick and roll was deadly against the Blazers and needs to at least be effective against Phoenix.
Nuggets defense needs a rethink
Defensively, everything went wrong when the Nuggets put Aaron Gordon on Devin Booker to start the second half. Theoretically, Gordon is a great defender who can shut off the Phoenix attack before it starts by bottling up Booker, but the Suns exploited that scheme with some guy named Chris Paul and the Nuggets back line of help defense was extremely suspect once Gordon was out of the secondary/weak-side help action. The Nuggets are not the Lakers. They don’t have Anthony Davis roaming back there to cover up all the open space. Instead, they have Facundo Campazzo back there.
Read this excellent article by Zach Lowe to see how the Suns make you pay in space. The fact that the Suns can run their offense with either Paul or Booker makes it impossible to beat them by putting your best defender on just one of them and hoping for the best with weak back side defenders.
Defense with offense
As our friend Ryan Blackburn says, the Nuggets best defense is just being better on offense than the Suns are. A focused Jokić is unstoppable, even for joker-whisperer Deandre Ayton. The Nuggets best chance to beat the Suns is to solve for Ayton on defense, and that can he helped by inducing Ayton into committing fouls. They need to get Ayton into space and test his mettle on pump fakes, jukes and flailing. The sooner you get DA with 2-3 fouls, the better your chances.
Jokić needs to average 47+ points created per night for the Nuggets to win the series — that is points scored + points off assists. For the season, he averaged 26.4 points + 20.7 points off assists = 47 points created. Against Portland, he averaged 33 points + 12 points off assists = 45 points created. In Game 1 against the Suns, he only generated 29 points (22 scored + 7 on assists). That’s 17 points off his average, in a 15-point loss. Expect that to change.
Do the Suns need adjustments?
The Suns played a really excellent game in G1 on Monday, generating a 42-14 run to pummel the Nuggets into submission. Sounds like they don’t need to make any adjustments at all, right? Seems like they can play the same style every game and win them all, right?
One big adjustment is to make sure they have the right defensive scheme on Porter. He scored at will in the first quarter, and was only limited the rest of the way by back soreness. The Suns need to see how the Nuggets were freeing Porter and make sure they squeeze that space just a little more.
Another adjustment is making sure they continue to cut off Jokić’s passing lanes. The Nuggets will change their scheme to get Jokić on the move more, and out in space more, to survey the defense and deliver scoring passes. He generates 20 points a night on his assists, but only tallied 7 on Monday. Expect him to work very hard to get his teammates involved all night long.
Finally, the Suns cannot succeed if Ayton gets into foul trouble. So they need to make sure Ayton gets help on the back side from other defenders. He can’t be forced to cover mistakes all night, because that means he’s reaching and lunging. Stay sound, stay in front of your man, and don’t make Ayton save the world. He’s got a big enough task controlling Jokić.
Every game is different, and before the series started I predicted the Suns would split at home, meaning a loss tonight. The Nuggets will make adjustments, and if the Suns aren’t ready they could be caught on their heels.
But then again, this is PHOENIX and the crowd is so so good. The Suns have won 18 of their last 20 home games, so how can I actually bet against a win?
My prediction: Suns win, 120-115.