On Saturday night, a 125-107 series-opening loss to the Nuggets in Denver, this iteration of the Phoenix Suns found out what it was like to start a playoff series on the road. Neither Devin Booker nor Deandre Ayton had done that yet, having been the home-court-advantage team in all seven playoff series of their careers to date.
They should have been able to lean on a couple of their teammates, though. Kevin Durant had started on the road in 8 series in his career (of 31 total playoff series)...and is 2-6 in those eight series. Chris Paul had also started on the road in 8 series in his career (of 26 total)...and is 1-7 in those series. That’s not a great track record, is it?
Well, it’s par for the course. Teams that win the first game of a best-of-seven series at home go on to win the series 85.4% of the time (321-55), per NBA.com in an article published back in 2018. That gives the Suns a 16% chance to win this series now. These current Suns are bucking that trend though — they are just 4-2 after winning Game 1 at home the last three years, so maybe they can flip the odds on their first road series.
To do that, the Suns are going to have to turn up their intensity. They know how to win playoff road games all right, but trying to win GAME 1 as the road team requires a whole new level of intensity. The crowd is amped against you, and the home team had all kinds of time to prepare for you before the series started.
Now, they have to win 4 of the next 6 games, with up to three on each team’s floor. Yes, the Suns can win the series. Getting a win in Game 2 resets the whole series with three of the next four in Phoenix after that, and even if they get down 0-2 they’ve SEEN other teams recover to win the series against the them in just these past two years. Add in Golden State pushing the Kings to Game 7 after losing Game 1 in the first round, in a series to be decided this afternoon, and you’ve got plenty of recent examples of road teams coming back from an 0-1 hole.
Unfortunately, the Suns gave us no good feelings after Game 1. They got outshot on threes, outhustled on the boards and outplayed in the passing lanes. Overall, just a bad game for the Suns.
Let’s take a closer look.
The Nuggets rebounded HALF their misses in the first half where they took the 17-point lead. They had 12 offensive rebounds to the Suns’ 12 defensive rebounds (50%). Post All-Star, Denver has grabbed 29.8% of their own misses (tied for 8th, with the Suns).
On the other end, Denver grabbed 15 of the 18 available defensive rebounds off missed Suns shots. That’s 17% for the Suns, compared to their post-All-Star average of 29.8%.
In other words, it’s not a personnel or scheme issue. Since the All-Star break, the teams averaged the same 29.8% offensive rebound percentage, and they are mid-to-below average on defensive rebounding (78.8% for the Suns, 78.1% for the Nuggets).
On an individual level, Nikola Jokic had 7 offensive rebounds and 7 defensive rebounds in that first half alone (14 total), compared to Deandre Ayton’s 1 and 2 for 3 total rebounds in the half. Now, they weren’t always charged with boxing each other out due to both teams’ switching habits, but that’s a big red flag if Ayton can’t even stay close on production. For the season, Ayton averages 10 rebounds while Jokic averages 12.
Here’s a play that made the rounds on twitter, showing the effort difference between these two players. Come on, DA.
The Suns are not a contender if this is the version of Ayton they get — dude is an unserious basketball player.— Lakers Vino (@VinoUncorked) April 30, 2023
Kevin Durant led the Suns in rebounding (14), while no one else on the Suns had more than Ayton’s 7. On Denver’s side, Jokic had 19 rebounds in the full game, while no one else had more than 6 for the Nuggets.
“The physicality has got to turn up a notch,” Ayton said afterward. Mmmhmmm.
The Suns were out-hustled in another area too. The Nuggets got 14 steals in the game, turning them into 18 points. Unfortunately, the Suns re-opened a regular season wound of live-ball turnover that get the other team out in transition.
The Suns are simply still going through a lot of telegraphed motions to get into their sets, and the Nuggets were ready for them.
Kevin Durant, who shifted into more of a playmaking role in this one for the first time with the Suns, committed 7 of the Suns 16 overall turnovers. Since joining the Suns, Durant averaged 3.5 assists to 2.5 turnovers in 8 regular season games, then 6.2 assists to 3.4 turnovers against the Clippers in round one (5 games).
Game 1 versus Denver was his worst assist-to-turnover outing yet.
"I only had one assist, seven turnovers. We're not going to win basketball games like that."— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) April 30, 2023
Kevin Durant after Game 1. #Suns #NBAPlayoffs #Nuggets pic.twitter.com/uflx20pkBZ
This isn’t the Clippers. You just cannot get +10d on three pointers all the way through the playoffs and hope to win a championship. Contrary to what you may have heard, the Suns actually out-attempted their opponents on threes (33 to 31) in the eight regular season games with Kevin Durant, despite the label of Midrange Mafia. Those are mid-pack numbers compared to league averages.
Yet in Round One against the Clippers, they were outshot on threes by 51 in 5 games — an average of 10.2 per game. Luckily, the Suns made up for it with free throws (+12 for the series) and better overall shooting (51.5% to 46%).
Against Denver’s top offense, that’s not gonna work. In Game 1’s deciding first half, the Suns shot 55% from the floor to Denver’s 47%, but were down 17 points in part because the Clippers took 12 more threes than the Suns did, making 7 more for a +21 on threes. Add in +15 on shot attempts overall, thanks to the hustle mentioned earlier, and the Suns were lucky to be down only 17 at half.
At the individual level, Denver’s Jamal Murray jacked up 10 threes (made 6) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope put up 8 (made 3), while the Suns’ Devin Booker and Kevin Durant combined for only 4 attempts the whole game (made 1). That can’t happen going forward.
Having said all that, it’s just one game.
The Suns can and will make some corrections. It’s mostly just attitude and effort — fight harder on the boards, protect the ball — and some of it could be scheme changes. Jamal Murray and other three point shooters had way too many open looks. Jokic had it way too easy in the paint on the boards.
“I thought they were more physical, played with more force,” coach Monty Williams said.
"I thought they were more physical, played with more force."— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) April 30, 2023
Monty Williams after #Suns Game 1 loss to Nuggets. pic.twitter.com/gszeXk5g3K
“We can’t let them really get comfortable,” Ayton said. “We weren’t in their way. That’s not Suns basketball.”
All in all, the Suns will have to turn up the intensity to the highest level yet in these playoffs.
As Ayton says, they’re going to need to be a completely different team in Game 2, or they’ll be heading back to Phoenix in an 0-2 hole.
"We're going to be a completely different team Game 2. I can tell you that." Deandre Ayton after #Suns Game 1 loss to #Nuggets pic.twitter.com/dU6MW3x22K— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) April 30, 2023
Kevin Durant has been around the block a few times in the playoffs, so he’s just looking forward to the next game.
“On the road, you want to try and get you one in the first two games,” Durant said. “We’ll look at film tomorrow and see what we can do better and see how we can give ourselves a better chance to win.”
"On the road, you want to try and get you one in the first two games. We'll look at film tomorrow and see what we can do better and see how we can give ourselves a better chance to win."— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) April 30, 2023
Kevin Durant after #Suns Game 1 loss to #Nuggets.
Game 2 Monday in Denver. pic.twitter.com/PSbgxEoyRd
Game 2 is on Monday Night in Denver, at 7:00pm on TNT.