What: Phoenix Suns (41-35, 25-12 at home) vs. Denver Nuggets (51-25, 19-18 on the road)
When: 8:30 p.m. AZ Time
Where: Footprint Center
Watch: NBA TV, Bally Sports AZ
Listen: 98.7 FM
The Denver Nuggets come into Friday's match-up first in the Western Conference and lead the season series with the Suns, 2-0.
They’ve yet to see the Suns healthy and have yet to see Kevin Durant in general for the 2022-23 campaign.
Denver is one of the most potent offenses in the NBA, and at the helm is perineal MVP candidate, Nikola Jokic.
He’s quite literally everything. He initiates offense and pick-and-roll, operates as a hand-off/post/elbow hub, and is used in movement sets inside and outside the arc.
The most all-encompassing offensive talent in the NBA.
His hand in everything is why they have the second-best offense in the NBA on the season (119.0).
Defensively, they’re a less consistent story, as they are 18th in defensive rating at 114.7, and 18th in the half-court at 98.5.
Pieces like their off-season acquisitions of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (via trade), and Bruce Brown (via free agency) have helped to fortify their defense both on the wing as well as at the point of attack, however, even those two have had uneven results increasingly of late.
Defense continues to be the side of the ball they’ve yet to sustain profound success on, and is an area the Suns can truly dictate from.
This is a rather meaningful game for the Suns, as they will all be the rest of the way.
· Chris Paul
· Devin Booker
· Josh Okogie
· Kevin Durant
· Deandre Ayton
Nuggets could be without four starters tonight in Phoenix. Nikola Jokic (calf), Jamal Murray (left knee injury management), Michael Porter Jr. (left heel injury management) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (non COVID illness) are all questionable for the back-to-back in Phoenix.— Harrison Wind (@HarrisonWind) March 31, 2023
Nuggets starting five in Phoenix tonight could be: Bruce Brown, Christian Braun, Vlatko Cancar, Aaron Gordon and Thomas Bryant— Harrison Wind (@HarrisonWind) March 31, 2023
I know Suns fans are afraid of Thomas Bryant for some reason, but here’s this after scoring 4 points and grabbing 3 rebounds as a starter in place of Nikola Jokic (rest) last night in Denver.
Michael Malone doesn’t have an answer for why Thomas Bryant is out of rhythm— NBACentral (@TheNBACentral) March 31, 2023
“No idea. Can't answer it. Maybe ask him that.”
(Via @HarrisonWind ) pic.twitter.com/GW3mORTVHJ
- A refreshing clean injury report for the Phoenix Suns
- See above
3 things to Watch For
Ayton vs Jokic (if he plays)
The battle of the bigs will be at the forefront of everything, as Jokic and Ayton are a high-end frontcourt match-up.
Jokic (averaging 27.7/11.3/7.8 on 60.3/37.5/83.3 shooting in this match-up) is 7-3 against Ayton (20.7/12.0 on 61.5% from the field) for their careers.
Ayton staying out of foul trouble - being involved directly in so many different scenarios - is imperative (3.6 fouls per game vs Jokic in the regular season). He also cannot play it “safe” and just exist on defense either, as the physicality in tandem with athleticism and general activity that he can put forth is a weapon in and of itself.
Nuggets pick-and-roll defense vs Suns prolific pairings
The Nuggets are not a good defensive pick-and-roll team.
They’re good at the point of attack with Brown and Caldwell-Pope defending ball handlers and initiators, but even their pressure and activity sometimes aren’t enough, as they can’t account for the back end while out on the perimeter navigating screens or in denial one pass away.
Caldwell-Pope, specifically, takes the brute of their point-of-attack reps, and is stout, especially defending pick-and-roll ball handlers (allowing just 0.889 PPP which ranks 59th percentile - good). Players have an effective field goal percentage of just 47.8% when guarded by him in these scenarios. He’s physical, active with his hands, and has stout defensive movement patterns to play angles, as well as navigate screens - with activity.
The Nuggets have made a defensive shift upon acquiring the aforementioned two, which is bringing Jokic out of his drop coverage, and much closer to - or at - the level of the screen, more frequently than not.
He is equipped with quick feet and underrated quick hands (7th in total deflections, with 212 - will be his fourth consecutive season in the top-10 for total deflections), but lacks the lateral agility to contain the ball past one or two defensive slides.
That, in tandem with one of their point-of-attack defenders typically on-ball, renders pertinent decision-making reads to be made by less effective defenders behind the screen - from both the lowman and the other remaining weak side defender.
The lowman is essential to solving their defensive riddles and will continue to be called to task - as teams like the Suns (with Paul at the helm) will sniff out the slightest absence of positioning, and exploit.
Notice here, after some goo ball and player movement, Finney-Smith is able to get a paint touch via the slip, and generate a reaction advantage that compromises both the play on-ball (Porter Jr and Caldwell-Pope don't communicate the switch or coverage), then Jokic (the lowman here), barely reacts by the time Finney-Smith cuts, catches, and finishes.
Same here, as Jeff Green is late on his lowman responsibilities, with Zeke Nnaji at the level of the screen.
Different scenario here, as Jokic is in drop coverage, but the premise is similar. Gordon loses contact and containment at the point of attack, Avdija is able to navigate the midrange undeterred, and engages Jokic in a 2 v 1, for a lob with no back-end help.
How often the Suns can compromise and manipulate the Nuggets defense will be important to gauge.
Offensively, we know what Jokic brings, as detailed earlier.
Independent of him is Aaron Gordon (who Jokic is second in total assists at the rim to this season, at 128), who’s enjoying a career season.
Gordon’s two-point field goal percentage (64.2%), effective field goal percentage (61.4%), and true shooting percentage (62.9%) are all career-best in efficiency.
A ton of his offense comes from duck-ins, rolling off screens for Jokic, high-low looks, and general advantages created or manipulated by Jokic wizardry.
Durant will likely be tasked with that physical match-up, and it will be interesting to see how he fairs in help, as Gordon isn’t a spacer, and rather elects to occupy the short corner and dunkers spots.
No Murray takes some wind out of their offensive sails, but they do still have Porter Jr in tow, who’s shooting 41.5% on 7.2 attempts from deep per game.
He does so off of movement, hand-offs, screens, in transition, and from every spot from beyond - in a proficient manner.
How often will the Suns send random doubles at Jokic?
Especially sans Murray, their spacing will be slightly compromised, as well as a ton of their flare screen and “get” action plays where Murray’s pull-up prowess keeps defenses honest with coverage.
Sound On— Stephen PridGeon ☯️ (@StayTrueSDot3) March 30, 2023
The Suns pieced together an impressive win, after a slow start yesterday
In which, they saw:
· Paul probing out of 'Stack'
· Good doubling the post & rotating
· Taking away of Minnesota's empty corner looks pic.twitter.com/Wx5IUQLWMz
Youtube link, starting with the defense, here:
The Suns have had good reps doubling against a multitude of offensive weapons the last few weeks, none as great as Jokic in navigating said scenarios via the pass, however.