Who: Phoenix Suns (4th seed) vs. Denver Nuggets (1st seed)
What: Round Two, Conference Semi-Finals, 2023 NBA Playoffs (best of seven)
Where: Ball Arena, Denver, CO (G1,2,5,7), Footprint Center, Phoenix, AZ (G3,4,6)
When: G1 is Saturday, April 29 in Denver. Time TBD.
Watch: Bally Sports Arizona, National: TBD
Listen: 98.7 FM
DraftKings Betting Line: Denver is favored by 2.5 points at home in G1
Hoo Boy. Here. We. Go.
Ever since the Phoenix Suns swept the Denver Nuggets two years ago, capped by a pair of wins on Denver’s home floor while reigning MVP Nikola Jokic got himself ejected amid egregious ‘Suns in 4!’ chants, the Nuggets and their fans have been waiting for vengeance.
That year, the Suns had home court advantage, starting 2-0 on their home floor and finishing with 2-0 on Denver’s floor. This year, the tables are turned as the Nuggets are the top seed and the Suns are the underdog. For the first time in Devin Booker’s career, he will start a playoff series on the road after starting off his first seven (6-1 record in Game 1s) in Phoenix.
Denver won the top seed in the West this year with a 53-29 record (64% win rate), the same win rate that got them the 3rd seed in that 2021 Playoffs (that year was 47 wins on a 72-game schedule). This is the first time the Nuggets have won the top seed in the West, but it’s only the second-best record of the Jokic era.
The West has been riddled by injuries to many of the game’s biggest stars. The Nuggets, for a change, have been pretty lucky on the injury front this season as were the 3rd seed Kings. Some teams, including the Suns, have gotten healthy at the right time. We might see the 6th (Warriors, leading 3-2 over Kings) and 7th (Lakers, leading 3-2 over Grizzlies) seeds win their first round series. Per The Ringer, it’s been 34 years since a 6 and 7 seed both won their first round series in the same playoffs. More recently, the Knicks made the Finals as an 8-seed in 1998-99. That’s how rare it is for low seeds to win. Only 5 times in the last 40 years has a 7th or 8th seed won a playoff round of any kind. The Lakers might just do it this year.
I digress. Back to Suns-Nuggets.
The Suns got home court advantage in the first round despite winning only 45 games while surviving huge swaths of missed time by their best players. Devin Booker (53 of 82), Chris Paul (59) and Kevin Durant (47, including 8 in Phoenix) didn’t even play enough games to qualify for regular season awards. Luckily, they got to face an injured Clippers team in round one as they worked out some kinks on offense and defense.
One of the Suns or Nuggets will survive and make the Conference Finals for the second time in their current iterations. The Nuggets got there with Jokic-Murray-Malone in the 2020 Bubble, while the Suns got there with Booker-Paul-Williams in 2021. The winner will be seen as a contender. The loser will, unfortunately, face a lot of questions and skepticism going forward.
Actual game time and national TV network is still to be determined, depending on the outcomes of other first round series that are still going.
These teams have a weird college-style schedule, playing Sat/Mon this weekend, then Fri/Sun the next week, with three full off days between Game 2 in Denver and Game 3 in Phoenix. Lots of time for in-series adjustments!
Recent Playoff Success
Suns: In the three years the foursome of head coach Monty Williams, point guard Chris Paul, shooting guard Devin Booker and center Deandre Ayton have been together, the Suns are 25-17 in the playoffs with a 5-2 series record. They are 3-0 in the first round, 1-1 in the second round, 1-0 in the Conference Finals and 0-1 in the NBA Finals.
Nuggets: In Denver, head coach Michael Malone and two-time MVP Nikola Jokic have been together for five straight playoff runs. Overall, they are 25-28 in the playoffs together with a 5-4 series record. They are 4-1 in the first round, 1-2 in the second round and 0-1 in the Conference Finals. However, they were missing their second best player in two of those playoff runs. With Jamal Murray in the lineup, the Nuggets are 20-18 in the playoffs with a 4-2 series record.
Suns-Nuggets, Playoffs Head to Head: The Suns swept the Nuggets 4-0 in the second round of the 2021 Playoffs. The Nuggets were without Jamal Murray (knee) in that one, though the Nuggets still came in with a 47-25 record (16-8 without Murray) and had beaten the Blazers in round one. Nuggets fans are quick to frame that 2021 series as if they’d been decimated up and down the roster, but going 20-10 without Murray, including winning a playoff round and still having the league MVP in your lineup is not decimation. A few pundits even picked the Nuggets to win that series.
“We had no juice, no energy, no passion, no fight, no urgency, no grit,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone after one of the blowout losses in that series. “This was just an embarrassing performance, all the way around.”
Before 2021, the Suns and Nuggets franchises had not met in the playoffs since a 3-0 Suns sweep in 1989. In fact, the last time a Nuggets team beat a Suns team in the playoffs was 1983. That’s 40 years ago.
Suns-Nuggets, Regular Season Head to Head: Regular season success/failure doesn’t count when it comes to the playoffs, and don’t let anyone tell you different. It doesn’t matter if Jamal Murray four-steps his way to a game winner in a November game, or if the Nuggets got a Christmas Miracle or three to win a December game. Overall, the teams are 5-5 against each other in the regular season the last three years.
Knock on wood. As of this writing, the best players on both the Suns and Nuggets are healthy and ready to roll.
As of Thursday morning, 4/26:
- Nuggets are getting the home court odds in Game 1, favored by 2.5 points over the Suns
- Suns are slightly favored to win the series (-140) and move on to the Conference Finals
- Suns-Warriors has the highest odds as the Conference Finals matchup (+210), followed closely by Suns-Lakers (+300), though the other side of the bracket has not yet been determined. Both the Lakers and Warriors have 3-2 series leads with Game 6 at home on Friday (and Game 7 on Sunday, if necessary).
- Suns are favored to win the Western Conference (+165), with Warriors 2nd at +270 after their Game 5 win in Sac
- Suns have the 2nd best odds to win the NBA title (+400), behind only the Celtics at +140
First Round Quotes and Notes
Both Suns and Nuggets won their first round series, 4 games to 1. The Suns lost a very close opener, then won four straight. The Nuggets got up 3-0, lost a very close Game 4, then closed it out at home in Game 5.
Both teams came close to losing Game 5 to the visiting, underdog team. The Nuggets and Suns were both tied or within two points in the final two minutes, but then closed out the game with key stops and scores.
The Suns had been down nine at halftime, 70-61, blew out the Clippers in the third quarter, 50-24, and took a 20-point lead early in the 4th quarter. Booker outscored the Clippers all by himself in the quarter, 25-24, with his teammates adding another 25.
“It was spiritual,” teammate Kevin Durant said of Booker’s 25-point third quarter. “I don’t scream too much in the games no more as I got older, but when he hit that three at the top of the key, I felt the energy. I know everyone in our crowd felt it.”
The Clippers fought back as the Suns lost their edge and cut the lead all the way down to 130-128, before the Suns got some stops and finished the game on a 6-2 spurt.
“It was a rollercoaster. A lot of ups and downs,” Booker said of the fourth quarter of Game 5. “One bad minute, they hit four threes. That is 12 points to change it from a 14 (point lead) to two-point game. I think it is a good lesson for us moving forward: don’t play with your food. Finish out as strong as you can, keep playing all the way until the whistle blows.”
Durant did not dominate, but still put up 28.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.0 blocks with 51.8 FG% and 45.8 3P%. Crazy good, yet quiet.
“We stressed in the locker room [at halftime] we didn’t want to go back to L.A. unless it was for the Western Conference Finals. Just wanted to get it done,” Booker said of the Suns sizzling third.
The only way the Suns could go back to LA in these playoffs now would be if the Los Angeles Lakers and Suns make the Western Conference Finals. The Lakers are up 3-2 in their own first round series, and would face the winner of Kings-Warriors (Warriors lead 3-2) in the next round.
Fun fact: if either the Lakers or Warriors make it to the West Finals and the Suns beat the Nuggets, the Suns would regain home court advantage for that series.
First Round Playoff Stats
How things have changed
Suns and Nuggets fans remember that 2021 Playoff series very very well. That was just two years ago! For Suns fans, it’s a warm blanket of a memory, while for Nuggets fans it’s an abomination that should be eradicated from history books.
A lot has changed for both teams in only two years, but a lot has remained the same as well — especially at the top of each roster. Each team brings back their top three players from that series while adding a new star to the mix.
Let’s rank the players on each of the 2021 teams and 2023 teams (rankings are subjective, but should pass the smell test).
Both teams retain the same coaches and same schemes.
The Suns have added Kevin Durant, while the Nuggets have added Jamal Murray (who was injured in 2021). Durant has the much longer playoff pedigree, but Murray’s career playoff numbers (24.7 points, 5.9 assists, 4.8 rebounds with 47/41/90 shooting splits) are not that far off of Durant’s career playoff numbers (29.4, 4.2, 7.8 with 47/36/87 splits).
If you give the Suns the benefit of saying Durant > Murray, you also need to acknowledge Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. have improved for Denver while Chris Paul and, to a lesser extent, Deandre Ayton have regressed for the Suns.
Getting beyond the top four for each team, Denver has improved the rest of their rotation compared to the 2021 playoff series, adding defensive minded Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown to their wing rotation as well as young Christian Braun who always seems to make a positive impact.
All in all, the Suns added the best player to the series in Kevin Durant, but Denver’s improvements should close the gap on the 2021 floor-wipe and make this series a toss up. I’m inclined to say the Nuggets have vastly improved their overall talent since that 2021 series, yet they didn’t win games at a higher clip so I’m not sure what to believe
I truly think this series is a toss-up, and the games will come down to who makes the biggest shots in the biggest moments. Murray and Jokic for Denver, Durant, Booker and Paul for the Suns have all made their careers on big shots in big moments.
I’ll do the hometown thing and says Suns in 6, winning the series in front of their home crowd.
Nikola Jokic is not giving Devin Booker or Chris Paul anything to get fired up about.
Nikola Jokic, from the No. 1 seed Denver Nuggets, on the Suns: "I mean, probably, they are the favorites to win the championship." pic.twitter.com/51V1EwRwCC— HoopsHype (@hoopshype) April 26, 2023