Denver Nuggets vs. Phoenix Suns Playoff Previewby Darius Walker June 7, 2021 0 comments
The Denver Nuggets defeated the Portland Trail Blazers in six games in the first round, and Nikola Jokic was dominant all series. Even without Jamal Murray, the Nuggets are still a contending team. Their role players stepped up in the opening round as Monte Morris and Austin Rivers held their own against Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Morris’ scoring off the bench was the deciding factor against Portland, outscoring McCollum in both Game 5 and Game 6. Michael Porter Jr. is flourishing as the second option on offense with Murray out. The Suns play smothering defense, so Porter Jr.’s shot-creating ability will be needed even more in this series.
Chris Paul suffered a shoulder injury in Game 1 against the Los Angeles Lakers that limited him for the entire series. The Suns still managed to win the series in six games. Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker played big in their first-ever playoff appearance, carrying the Suns to their first playoff series win in 10 seasons. Ayton averaged a double-double and proved to be too much for the Lakers’ big men to handle. Booker is a future superstar and he put the world on notice as he averaged 29.7 points per game against LA. Paul’s shoulder injury affects his jump shot, so Booker will have to carry an even bigger scoring load against the Nuggets.
Denver Nuggets: +175
Phoenix Suns: -220
The Nuggets are underdogs for the second consecutive series. They won the season series against the Suns 2-1, and Jokic was dominant in every matchup. He is the reason the Nuggets would be a great bet here. The Suns have the better team, but The Joker is the best player in the series, which is always an advantage. Even as underdogs, it would not be a big upset if the Nuggets win the matchup. The Suns are a young, unproven team. The Nuggets are more battle-tested and have the better coach in Mike Malone. Usually, the underdog doesn’t have multiple advantages over the favorite, so Denver offers a lot of value here.
After defeating the reigning champs in six games, the Suns are the heavy favorites at -220. As mentioned, the Nuggets have Jokic but the Suns have been a more cohesive unit this season. The Suns also play gritty defense. Without Murray, the Nuggets have no answer for the Suns’ backcourt; Paul and Booker can get into the lane.
One thing to keep a close eye on here is Paul’s health. If it gets any worse and he’s forced to miss games, the Nuggets become the better team. With a healthy Paul, the Suns would be a safe bet but his lingering injury may cause bettors to tread lightly in backing them.
Nikola Jokic vs. Deandre Ayton
Jokic is the favorite to win the 2021 NBA MVP award and he further solidified his case against the Blazers. He was unstoppable and could not be contained by any of the Blazers’ big men, scoring 34 or more points in all but one game. Ayton is a better defender than what the Blazers had to offer. He has quick feet so he will be comfortable defending the Denver center on the perimeter and he has the strength to bang with him in the paint. It will be important for Jokic to keep Ayton in foul trouble throughout this series. He is the anchor for the Suns defensively and a great rebounder, as well. Without Murray, the Nuggets will need Jokic to continue his reign of dominance. If he struggles at all in this matchup, it will be a long series for the Nuggets.
Ayton’s impact in the first round is not getting talked about enough. He averaged 15.8 points per game and 10.7 rebounds per game, but his impact was greater than what the numbers say. From Games 1-4, Ayton recorded four double-doubles and scored over 20 points three times. Phoenix is a more dynamic team offensively when Ayton is involved and making Jokic work in this series will be pivotal for the Suns. Ayton needs to be in attack mode at all times. Defensively, he has to find a way to limit Jokic’s scoring. It’s easier said than done because the latter possesses a rare skill set for a center. Ayton must stay out of foul trouble, the Suns are going to need him on the floor with Jokic at all times. The fate of the Suns lies in this matchup, so Ayton is under tremendous pressure.
Devin Booker vs. Michael Porter Jr.
Porter is the Nuggets’ best shooter and has flashed star potential throughout the season. He gets hot in a hurry. Porter scored 22 points in the first quarter of the Nuggets’ Game 6 win over Portland, but this will be his toughest test yet. He will have Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder defending him this series. Bridges is only 24 years old but he is establishing himself as one of the better perimeter defenders in the NBA. Crowder is a pesky defender who knows how to get under the skin of opposing players. They will not let him get many open looks from three so Porter will have to attack the basket more often. On the defensive end, the Nuggets’ small forward cannot be a liability. Bridges and Crowder both shoot the three well and Porter must stay mentally locked-in.
Booker is one of the NBA’s rising stars. He will look to continue his ascension with another great series. The former Kentucky Wildcat has everything in his offensive repertoire: He works all three levels as a scorer and is great at drawing fouls. Against the Lakers, Booker took smaller defenders into the post and Los Angeles had no answer. Booker should have a similar attack against the Nuggets due to their small backcourt. Ayton will have his hands full defensively with Jokic and Paul has a bum shoulder so Booker may have to go tit-for-tat with Jokic as far as scoring production. The Suns are going to need Booker to take on more playmaking and ball-handling duties with Paul not being at 100 percent. This is a big moment for Booker. Out-dueling the MVP favorite will help solidify his spot as one of the future faces of the NBA.
Cameron Payne vs. Monte Morris
Payne went from an NBA afterthought to one of the better backup point guards in the NBA. Against the Lakers, Payne pushed the pace in transition and knocked down big shots. He played with confidence and did not shy away from the moment when Paul was injured. CP3’s injury could get worse, so Payne could end up with an even bigger role on offense.
With Murray, PJ Dozier, and Will Barton all sidelined with injuries, Morris played extended minutes against the Trail Blazers. Morris shined, averaging 15.3 points and 5.8 assists per game while shooting 41.7 percent from three point range. Morris is one of the NBA’s best when it comes to assist-to-turnover ratio, so coach Malone can trust Morris to make the proper plays down the stretch. It’s not often that a matchup between backup guards decides a series, but that could very well be the case in this series.
Denver Nuggets X-Factor: Aaron Gordon
The Nuggets acquired Gordon because he brings something different to the team defensively. He is comfortable defending multiple positions, and he put that on full display against the Blazers. He spent time defending Carmelo Anthony, Lillard and McCollum. In Game 2, Gordon accepted the challenge of becoming the primary defender against Lillard. He may not have completely stopped him, but he played physical defense and made Lillard work for his baskets. Gordon is 6’9″ but he is more athletic than all of the Nuggets guards. Booker likes to play in the post, so with the Nuggets having smaller guards, Gordon should see a heavy dose of Booker this series.
Phoenix Suns X-Factor: Chris Paul
Paul’s shoulder injury is still the biggest question mark for the Suns, as his impact on the floor is immeasurable. Phoenix played with a different demeanor just by Paul stepping on the floor. The Lakers left him wide open on the three-point line and he could not capitalize on the shot. Paul is a wizard in the mid-range but he even looked uncomfortable shooting the ball from there. However, he still found a way to make plays for the team. The Suns are going to need Paul to knock down shots this series. Denver is a high-scoring team and they shoot the ball well from three. Booker and Ayton will not be able to beat them alone. Paul’s veteran savvy and late-game heroics will be needed.
Prediction: Phoenix Suns 4, Denver Nuggets 3
On paper, these are the two most evenly matched teams in the second round. The Suns have the better backcourt and play better team defense. Paul and Booker are both great late in games, so if these games go down to the wire they will have the advantage. Jokic will put up MVP numbers but the Phoenix role players will outperform the Nuggets’ role players and that will be the difference in the series.
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