This could be the defacto Western Conference Finals: The No. 1 seed vs. the conference betting favorite — +125 to make the Finals — and the team picked by many pundits to come out of the West. Kevin Durant vs. Nikola Jokić.
Here are three things to watch that will decide this showdown between the Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets.
1) Deandre Ayton vs. Nikola Jokić
If the Nuggets are going to win this series, they need MVP-level Jokić.
We didn’t see that guy in the first round against the big Timberwolves front line of Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns. Jokić was still very good — 26.2 points, 12.4 rebounds, nine assists a game with a 57.5 true shooting percentage — but he will have to find the next level, his regular season gear, for Denver to have a chance in this series.
Which is where Ayton comes in — he’s had success guarding Jokić in the past (again, relative to peak Jokić). These two faced off in the 2021 West second round and while Jokić dominated the counting stats — outscoring Ayton 100-57 for the series — he couldn’t lead the shorthanded Nuggets to even one win in the series. To get Ayton some rest, Bismack Biyombo gives Phoenix another big body and six more fouls to use on Jokić.
Also, look for the Suns to try and wear Jokić down by dragging him into every pick-and-roll they can, with Devin Booker or Durant handling the rock (and sometimes Chris Paul). On Friday, Jokić was asked how he plans to deal with that.
Nikola Jokic, asked how to defend Phoenix’s pick-and-roll: “Pray.”
Concluded a jovial media session where Joker chided the group for our “awful” questions.
He’s in a good place.
— Mike Singer (@msinger) April 28, 2023
Jokić had a sprained wrist, and while he says it is not bothering him he wore tape on his wrist for the first time all season during the last series. It’s something to watch.
One other note, the Nuggets were +27 last series with Jokić off the court. If Denver wins this series’s non-Jokić minutes, the Suns are in deep trouble.
2) Can the Nuggets’ depth, continuity expose the Suns’ lack of it?
Phoenix looked a bit better each game against the Clippers (it helps when the other team’s two best players are in street clothes), but there was still a lot of Monty Williams throwing lineups and strategies against the wall to see what stuck. Durant has still played a total of just 13 games in Phoenix and everything is still a bit of an experiment.
The core of this Nuggets team has been together for seven years in the same system. Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. missed a season (or most of it) with injuries, but this Denver team knows who it is, what it wants to do, and has the depth and continuity to be flexible. They know their coverages — how they want to handle pick-and-rolls — and are used to different lineups and combinations being on the court together.
Is that enough to wear the Suns down a little and win them a game? There is a long break — Monday to Friday — between games two and three, which will help the Suns’ legs.
While the Nuggets are deeper, they have limited options defensively at key spots. Expect Aaron Gordon to get a lot of time on Durant, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was brought in to guard guys like Booker. However, if those first options don’t work out, there are not a lot of second and third choices for Michael Malone to fall back on.
3) Can Suns win this series from the midrange against Nuggets’ 3-point shooters?
The Phoenix Suns are midrange killers — Durant, Booker and CP3 are all deadly at the shot most defenses want to give up. Against the Clippers, the Suns took just 27.3% of their shot attempts from 3 (the lowest rate in the postseason, a stat via John Schuhmann of NBA.com).
Three is worth more than two. The Nuggets are not 3-point gunners, they were 25th in the league in 3-point attempts per game this season, but they took almost 37% of their shot attempts from beyond the arc in dismissing the Timberwolves. And they can shoot more. They may need to this series — and hit a fair number of them to win. Porter, Murray, KCP are going to get their chances.
If Jokić and a driving Murray can have the Nuggets working inside-out and kicking to open shooters at the arc — and those shooters hit their shots — the math may favor the Nuggets this series.
Just know the Suns will be relentless from the midrange.
Prediction: Nuggets in seven. I never feel comfortable picking against Durant and Booker, and before the playoffs tipped off I picked the Suns to come out of the West. However, after watching their first-round series against the Clippers, I think the depth and holes in the roster are things the Nuggets can exploit enough to win.
This is an almost even series that could swing either way.