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Game Preview, R2G5: Suns stare decisive game 5 right in the face

Breaking down what will and won’t stick going into a near must-win

Phoenix Suns v Denver Nuggets - Game Four Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

What: Phoenix Suns (2-2) @ Denver Nuggets (2-2), Western Conference Semifinals, 2023 NBA Playoffs

When: 7 p.m. AZ time

Where: Ball Arena, Denver, Colorado

Watch: TNT

Listen: 98.7 FM

Looking back at Game 4 can be a bit of an adventure just from a standpoint of sustainability. After nine games of it, you can pretty much bank on Devin Booker and Kevin Durant double-doubles. Take it to the bank, put it in your parlay, these guys are doing it night in and night out.

Almost immediately after the 36 points from each of the stars, you’re left with wacky things like Josh Okogie starting but playing the 8th-fewest minutes, tied with Terrence Ross. There’s also Deandre Ayton getting single-digits across the board except for minutes and negatives in the +/- column, as well as Landry Shamet being the only non-star in double-digit scoring.

Put me down in pen for being in the camp that none of those three things will happen again in game 5, but it’s no longer a pipe dream to suggest the Suns bench outplaying the Nuggets bench in any given game. They won that head-to-head comparison 40-11 in game 4 after winning it just 22-20 in game 3.

However, after a $25,000 fine, I don’t think we’ll be seeing Nikola Jokic push Suns owner Mat Ishbia again. It may have inspired Ishbia to suit up and take a real charge in game 5, but I’m not holding my breath. To his credit, Ishbia didn’t want any further punishment for Jokic, tweeted the morning after the... incident:

Like Ishbia, I’m excited to get into game 5. Here’s what you need to know:


Injury report:

Suns: Chris Paul is OUT with a left groin strain, designated “day-to-day”

Nuggets: none to report

Uniform matchup (per NBA LockerVision):

Suns’ keys to win

Star balance

Over nine playoff games so far, Durant has been the leading scorer just twice by a combined two points. This isn’t a problem when Booker is having literally the best postseason since Michael Jordan, but some are left wondering if Durant is living up to the lofty expectations and trade value.

Durant started off game 3 ice cold, shooting 2-11 but turned it around to finish 10-20 and followed that up with just his second game of the series shooting better than 50% in game 4 when he shot 11-19. If he really is shaking off the cold shooting, he could be in for his first takeover game of this postseason; because Booker can’t keep this pace up forever, can he?

Big rotation

The minute totals for Ayton and Jock Landale have gotten awfully close. Ayton’s minute total has gone from 31.7 per game over the first two games (-10.5 per game) to 26.4 over the last two (-8.5) while Landale’s minutes have shot up from 7.9 (-4.0) to 21.4 (+13.0) per game. With roughly five minutes per game separating them over the recent stretch, one has to wonder how blurry that line will get in this series.

Defense has been a big reason why Landale is getting more run; per, Landale is holding opponents to 36.1% shooting (17.3% below his opponents’ normal rates) while Ayton is defending at 51.5% shooting (4.2% below). That extends to defending Jokic as well.

Ayton held Jokic to 9-13 (including seven assists to four turnovers) while Jock held him to 4-8 (four assists to one turnover)

Make life hard on Jokic

The two-time MVP has been as good as advertised in this series, maybe even better, nearly if not matching the level Booker’s been at. He’s shooting 42.9% on 3.5 3PA per game (up nearly 4.0% from his regular season efficiency), averaging as many offensive rebounds as turnovers (4.5), and is only fouling twice per game.

In some ways, the Suns have to do a better job of making Jokic work defensively by involving him in middle-of-the-floor actions, trying to get back door on him with cutters like Okogie, but there are also defensive solutions.

Jokic was especially troublesome in his 53-point, 11-assist gem of a game 4, but Landale had just a few more answers in terms of containing Jokic’s scoring. They only shared the court for a short while (mostly the middle part of the fourth), but Landale held Jokic to 4-8 shooting, four assists, and one turnover while Ayton held him to 9-13 shooting, seven assists, and four turnovers over an admittedly much larger sample size.

Monty Williams could do a better job of anticipating when the Ayton fouls are coming — they seem more frequent later on in his stints — as a way to find Landale more shared time with Jokic.

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