Series preview: will the Nuggets’ injuries finally catch up with those of the Suns?
We all know the competition goes up several notches in the playoffs. But if the regular-season streak between these teams is any indication, we should expect a rough, head-to-head street fight between this pair of hungry young teams looking to claim their rights in the Western Conference playoffs.
Denver won the regular-season series between the teams 2-1, but keep in mind that the average margin of victory in those games was only five points, with the Nuggets coming out on top in the last two games. January on consecutive days in overtime. and double overtime.
Devin Booker didn’t dress up for Phoenix’s 120-112 double-overtime loss on January 23, but at the time the Nuggets could lean heavily on Kia MVP leaders Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, who went on to go on was lost for the season in April due to a torn left ACL.
Jokic averaged nearly a triple-double in the regular season against the Suns, but without Murray in the fold, Michael Porter Jr. will be counted on to handle his production. Porter averaged 18.8 points in the first round against the Portland Trail Blazers. Denver could also start this series on Monday without PJ Dozier (adductor) and goalie Will Barton (hamstrings), who could be set to return to the roster.
“You see all these other teams in the playoffs and a lot of guys are injured,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Jamal Murray has been out for 24 games now and look at what we did without a guy who was one of the best players in the bubble last year. We lose two starters. We lose another guy with PJ Dozier, who is one of the first guys to leave the bench.
“So what that says about our group is that we are resilient, we are mentally strong, we believe in ourselves and our teammates. It’s a great feeling. We will need the same resolve to move on. Hope we can get a player or two back. But if we don’t, what a great opportunity. That’s why I love this group because no matter who you call on, they are willing to go out there and just do their job.
Three things to watch out for
1. Battle of the great. Ayton gradually declined offensively in the first round. He averaged 22 points in the first three games of the first round series and 10 points in the last three games. But in this series, defense is where Ayton needs to make his mark by keeping Jokic, who shot 56.6% from the field against Phoenix in the regular season averaging 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8. , 3 assists. The Suns enter this series with a defensive rating of 102.6 and are allowing an average of 44.7 points in the paint. Jokic is probably the most dangerous as a facilitator, but Ayton seems to be reaching his prime as a defender at the right time. Ayton is long and versatile, and able to hold up when placed on guard. Offensively, Ayton’s ability as a screener and rollerblade opens things up for Chris Paul and Devin Booker. So, while Jokic enters this game with MVP pedigree, don’t sleep on Ayton. It’s probably a more even game than you might think.
2. How Denver handles the Phoenix backcourt. This is where Murray and Barton’s absences hurt Denver the most. Rookie Facundo Campazzo and Austin Rivers will take on the responsibility of keeping Paul and Booker, which is no easy task even for the best guards in the league. Paul struggled with a lingering right shoulder injury throughout the playoffs, but that didn’t significantly hamper his ability to produce as a playmaker. Paul had a total of 46 assists in the playoffs. first round with just nine turnovers, while Booker comes off a career-high 47 points in the closing game against the Lakers. For as much faith as Malone has in his squad, he surely sees backcourt clashes as a major drawback. Malone made some good adjustments in the first round against Portland, and even dismissed Damian Lillard for a short time by putting Aaron Gordon forward on him.
3. Mikal Bridges vs. Michael Porter Jr. Bridges is Phoenix’s designated stopper on defense, which means he’s regularly tasked with guarding the opponent’s best perimeter player. So you can count on Bridges keeping Michael Porter Jr. for the majority of this series. In the last three games of the first round series against the Lakers, Bridges recorded six interceptions and three blocks while scoring at least 10 points. Porter, meanwhile, just played back-to-back 26-point nights in Games 5 and 6 of Denver’s First Round Series. Porter has shot at least 50% from 3 points in four of his last five games, and he tallied 22 points and six 3 points in the first quarter of Thursday’s win over Portland.
Malone and the Nuggets deserve tons of credit for putting it all together all season in the face of disheartening circumstances due to so many injuries. Malone mentioned that Denver is the only team still in the playoffs to use two-way players like Markus Howard, but you have to be wondering when all of this is finally going to catch up with the Nuggets. This series is the type of showdown where we’re probably all going to finally notice the lack of talent the Nuggets have been overcoming for some time. Denver managed to separate the weak Portland defense, but now faces a Suns defense that placed sixth in the regular season. Going back to last year’s bubble, Phoenix has been in sync and on a mission with the right mix of veteran leadership, experience, youth, and hunger. Suns in 6.
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Michael C. Wright is editor-in-chief for NBA.com. You can send him an e-mail here, find his archives here and follow him on Twitter.
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