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
The times and TV have been set for the first four games of the series.
You can find Part 1 of this series preview right here, as I broke down the history, lineups, changes since 2021 and side-by-side stats of their first round wins.
What he said
I checked in with long-time colleague Matt Moore of the Action Network for his thoughts on the Nuggets. We Suns fans certainly don’t know as much about the Nuggets as we do about the Suns, so here’s some insight on the Suns next opponent.
You might know Matt from his days as ‘Hardwood Paroxysm’ or from CBSSports.com. Matt covers all 30 teams on a level of detail few of us can hope to attain because he’s always analyzing the betting angles for Action. As a resident of Denver, Matt sees the Nuggets in person for all their home games as he scouts all 30 NBA teams on their way through Ball Arena.
Q: What is the Nuggets greatest strength (what no one can stop, when they’ve got it going)
A. The five-man starting offense around Jokic. They have layers upon layers and options beyond options. You want to switch? They’re putting your small in a pick and roll defending the screener. You want to double Jokic in the post? He’s the best in the league at manipulating it for open looks, and he’ll bring you up high to find cutters underneath. You want to play it straight up? He’ll score 40 on 25 shots. Denver has nights where the offense doesn’t look good, they’re not as singularly talented as Phoenix at just “dribble shoot, bucket” but when they’re clicking? It’s a nightmare to try and stop and it hits you like an avalanche from all angles.
What keeps the Nuggets from exhibiting that greatest strength all the time?
Turnovers, pace, and connectedness. Like any great passing offense, the Nuggets can get sloppy, and when they do, they don’t have the ability to get back and get stops. You can run the ball down their throat off turnovers, which is a big reason why their transition defensive numbers are horrendous. In related news, the Nuggets are 27-7 (79%) when they have fewer turnovers than their opponent, and 30-23 (57%) when they have more.
Denver also suffers when they don’t initiate the offense early. IF you’re going to run an offense dependent on multiple actions and leveraging the defense, you need more time to do it. When Denver fails to get into its sets, it’s a lot easier to stop.
Finally, just connectedness. When they’re not on the same page, the dynamic offense that astounds can look sloppy and disjointed. Things have to be in rhythm and harmony. Get them out of that, and they rely a lot more on individual player excellence, and they have some of that, but not like the Suns have. Furthermore, when that happens, their defense suffers and it creates a spiral.
What is the Nuggets greatest weakness?
Pick and roll defense. Denver was 21st in pick and roll defense this season, and has the second-worst mark behind the Bucks in the playoffs. That’s against a Timberwolves team missing several key pieces and while Anthony Edwards is awesome, he’s not nearly the level of pick and roll player the Suns have. The Nuggets have things they can do well; when they play at the level and blitz, they can recover and get back to challenge. But too often it leads to open corner threes. When they drop, Nikola Jokic is as bad as people tend to suggest his defense is all the time. If you get Jokic in his worse situations, you can light up the Nuggets.
How do the Nuggets hide or mitigate that weakness?
Switching up coverages is a lot of it. Denver got better as the season went on at the weakside rotations out of the hedge or blitz. That’s Denver’s upside: they get better at rotational timing the more they play a team at the same time Jokic figures out things on the offensive end more and more. They have athleticism with Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Christian Braun. But they also surrender switches easily and give teams the opportunity to pick their personnel matchups. Denver’s resistance to 1-4 switches will be important in this series.
What are 3 keys to the Nuggets winning the series against the Suns?
1. Offense, offense, offense. The Nuggets are not going to slow down a team capable of shooting above 50% in the mid-range. Good defenses can’t even do that. But they can outscore Phoenix using math to their advantage. The Suns, as Suns fans know, don’t take enough threes. If Denver finds ways to create not just efficient offense, but trade 3’s for 2’s, that gives them a chance. Phoenix is not well-built to defend Denver, Denver is not well-built to defend the Suns. They have to win this series with points.
2. MPJ has to win his minutes. The Suns tortured MPJ two years ago in the matchup. It was his second playoff run, and he had actually tweaked his back in that series. He’s a different, and much better, defender now. If the Suns try and attack him defensively, he has to hold up. The Nuggets can live with Murray-Jokic pick and roll being vulnerable. They can’t live with the suns able to attack three different starters. On the other end, if the Suns decide to put Kevin Durant on MPJ, he needs to attack and wear him out. That’s on the Nuggets to give him the ball and opportunities, but Denver has to make Durant work defensively to exhaust him.
3. Jokic has to make Ayton unplayable. Ayton gave Jokic fits two years ago. I looked it up, since then, Jokic has shot 21-of-33 against Ayton. If he dominates that matchup, it will force the Suns to either double, or go small. Either is a win for the Nuggets, especially on the offensive glass.
Thanks Matt! Always good to get the perspective from the non-Suns-centric world. As the series plays out, we can go back here and check to see what worked and didn’t work in real life.
Now, allow me to answer those questions myself from the Suns perspective.
Q: What is the Suns greatest strength (what no one can stop, when they’ve got it going)
A: The Suns greatest strength has now become shot-creating. All of Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Kevin Durant can create a shot for themselves or someone else out of nothing. And the presence of those three on the floor, while Deandre Ayton draws defenders into the paint on dives, makes it almost impossible to stop the Suns from getting the shot they want when they really need one.
The Suns offense isn’t pretty yet, but it’s already very effective. They’ve been one of the best in the playoffs in scoring 120 points per 100 possessions, ranked 2nd among playoff teams. And that’s going against a middling Clippers defense, to be sure, but one that’s been designed by one of the best playoff coaches in the league in Tyronn Lue.
Durant and Booker are two of the best one-on-one creators in the game. You simply can’t guard them one on one on a regular basis and hope to keep them from generating 50 points each (points + assists). With those guys drawing extra attention, how can you also hope to shut down the Ayton/Paul pick and roll?
What keeps the Suns from exhibiting that greatest strength all the time?
At this point their tenure together, the Suns and Durant are still feeling each other out. For two to three quarters, they’re doing a lot of trying new things out. Going through the actions at three-quarter speed, and seeing what comes out of it. And they’re playing Chris Paul almost entirely off-ball as often as possible, allowing Durant and Booker to run the offense while Paul stands in a corner for a catch-and-shoot. This is definitely not the same Suns team as the previous two playoffs, despite many of the players being the same. Two painful playoff exits and a Kevin Durant trade later, and you’ve got a different-looking Suns team to face.
What is their greatest weakness?
Coming out of round one, the Suns greatest weakness appears to be containing the ball handler outside the arc. The Clippers wings, led by Russell Westbrook, drove relentlessly into the paint to create either layups or open threes. While the Suns back line held up pretty well, the bigs constantly had to choose between picking up the suddenly-free driver or boxing out the Clippers big man from tapping in the offensive rebound on any miss.
With the offense going through Jokic in the high post, the Nuggets don’t drive as often as the Clippers do but they offer a whole new problem with the Jokic/Murray pick and roll. Can the Suns wing defenders hold up in defense?
Another weakness is depth. The Suns bench players were really bad in the first round, so bad that usually-stubborn head coach Monty Williams mostly gave up on them every night after a few poor first half minutes. He’s really only going seven deep, with Josh Okogie and Bismack Biyombo coming off the bench in both halves of every game.
How do they hide or mitigate that weakness?
They need the bench to play better. Damion Lee might hold up better against the slightly smaller Nuggets. And they could really use a healthy Cameron Payne to spell Chris Paul a few more minutes and take some load off Devin Booker running the offense when Paul rests.
What are 3 keys to the Suns winning the series against the Clippers?
- Health among the Core Four
- Contain Jokic like 2021
- Stay in front of Jamal Murray
The Nuggets are still slightly favored to win Game 1, while the Suns are still slightly favored to win the series overall.
I’ll be a homer and pick the Suns to shock the Nuggets in Denver with a G1 win.