On paper, this series couldn’t be more stylistically different. The Phoenix Suns slowly grind opponents down through never-ending mid-rangers, while the scheme of the Denver Nuggets is predicated on a 7-foot passing savant who looks like a 70’s Bond villain.
The only certainty we have is that every game will be a high-scoring affair. That’s to be expected when two of the greatest offensive players ever are set to square off, and I haven’t even mentioned Devin Booker and the return of Bubble Jamal Murray.
So, who has the upper hand?
First round takeaways
Everyone knew that Phoenix’s achilles heal was their lack of depth, but I don’t think many anticipated them needing to play KD 43.8 minutes and Booker 43.2 (they’re first and second in MPG in the playoffs) just to beat a Clippers team who only got two games combined from Kawhi and PG.
Confoundingly, KD hasn’t been utilized to his full extent, even with his huge minutes total: his usage rate has dropped from 31.9% in Brooklyn to 26.8% in his 8 regular season games in Phoenix to just 24.1% over the 5 first-round postseason matches. There were too many possessions of him just standing in the corner, like the one below.
Phoenix scored here but I'm still not convinced Monty Williams knows that Kevin freaking Durant's on his team pic.twitter.com/fcamyCoMQJ— Bill Huan (@bill_huan) April 27, 2023
KD’s so potent as a scorer that he draws attention even when he’s not involved in any action, but Phoenix can’t continue to use him as an overqualified decoy when Booker is their only other reliable creator due to CP3’s struggles. In the regular season, the Point God’s 24.9% usage rate was by far the lowest of his career, and it was also barely above the league average for his position (54th percentile).
More worrying is the fact that he only scored 110.8 points per 100 attempts, which was actually below average (48th percentile). It marked the first time in CP’s career that he was below league average in efficiency, as he’s never been worse than the nice 69th percentile he placed back in 2018-19.
Unfortunately, things got even more bleak during round 1. CP’s usage dropped to 20.8% (13th percentile) and he scored less than a point per shot (94.4 points per 100 attempts, 7th percentile) even with the Clippers selling out to stop KD and Booker. He also shot a very un-CP-like 40% from the mid-range, and if that continues against Denver, then the Nuggets would only need to worry about taking away his playmaking game.
Outside of the Suns’ four locked in starters, Torrey Craig seems to have won the 5th spot , and it’s worked so far considering he shot 56% from deep against L.A. That’s obviously an unsustainable rate, and if Craig goes cold, Phoenix will need to rely more on Josh Okogie, who only made 33% of his threes in the regular season and has gone just 2/7 so far in the playoffs.
Ultimately, the Suns’ success will be predicated on KD and Booker continuing to stay healthy and superhuman from mid-range. It’s a limited sample size, but Phoenix was destroyed by the Clippers during the minutes when only one or neither of them was been on the court, so they better be using some IcyHot to stay fresh.
Unlike Phoenix, Denver looked much better in their series against the Wolves, and a lot of that is due to the return of Bubble Murray: in 5 games, he averaged 27.2 points, 6.4 assists, and 5.6 rebounds on ridiculous 47/43/91 shooting splits. The two-man game between him and Jokic is the Nuggets’ bread and butter, and it was on full display in round 1.
Murray and Jokic's chemistry is a thing of beauty pic.twitter.com/NQO988YIFM— Bill Huan (@bill_huan) April 28, 2023
This postseason, Murray has run an average of 10 pick-and-rolls as the ballhandler per game (7th most) and scored an impressive 1.06 points on such plays, which is the highest number among any player running over 8 P&Rs per game. For comparison, he only averaged 6.2 in the regular season while scoring 0.97 points, so Denver is really prioritizing running their most efficient plays — as they should.
Another positive sign for Denver is their defense. The Nuggets’ 110.4 defensive rating is 6th so far in the playoffs and a sizeable improvement from their 17th-ranked, 114.6 rating in the regular season. 5 games is too small of a sample size to make any sweeping conclusions, but it’s still encouraging to see that Denver’s defense hasn’t been skewed by opponents struggling from deep. In fact, they’re actually 12th out of the 20 playoff and play-in teams in terms of opponents threee-point percentage at 35.5% .
Surprisingly, Denver’s largest defensive improvement has actually been their rim protection. They were ranked 29th in the regular season with opponents making 70.6% of their shots within 4 feet of the basket, but that’s down to 63.3% (8th out of 20 teams) in the playoffs. Minnesota was also quite good at finishing around the rim in the regular season by making 68.4% of their attempts, so Denver’s success wasn’t just the result of playing a bad finishing team, either.
The biggest surprise, though, is that the Nuggets actually dominated Minnesota when Jokic was off the floor. In 111 possessions (again, a small sample size), Denver had a +23.3 net rating due to an absurd 88.4 defensive rating (100th percentile) that would make Bill Russell proud. A lot of that is due to shooting luck — Minnesota shot below 30% in all areas of the court except for non-corner threes and at the rim — but the Nuggets’ 111.7 offensive rating (39th percentile) without Jokic is still a huge improvement from their abysmal 106.7 mark in the regular season.
So even when Denver’s opponent's shooting luck inevitably turns around, merely having a competent offense would go a long way in providing the Joker with some rest. Other than a high corner 3 percentage (66.7%), none of their offensive numbers screams unsustainable either, so it appears like Murray’s dominance and a tighter rotation will help keep the Nuggets afloat when their MVP’s off the floor.
Alright, enough preamble, it’s time to address the big question: how will Denver defend Phoenix’s pick and rolls and protect Jokic from being hunted?
Unlike what some SCHNORPS and VORPS say, the Joker is not one of the best defenders in the league (seriously, does he have blackmail on the creators of RAPTOR?). He’s a poor rim protector who allowed opponents to shoot 65.2% within 6 feet of the basket in the regular season, which was 0.5% higher than the opponents’ usual percentage.
As mentioned before, Denver was 29th in defensive field goal percentage around the rim after conceding 70.6% of opponents’ attempts, and as the team’s starting center, Jokic is the main culprit for that. In fact, the Nuggets were even worse with him playing by letting in 71.8% when he was on the court, which ranked in the 7th percentile in the regular season.
Even if Phoenix doesn’t exploit Jokic’s lackluster rim protection, they can still add wrinkles to their attack by getting their ballhandlers on the move when attacking him, which could create open threes by forcing the Nuggets to rotate.
Phoenix will likely try and attack Jokic on the move again and create wide open shots from the corner pic.twitter.com/LUvVFoIZLU— Bill Huan (@bill_huan) April 28, 2023
The Suns could also run plays like Spain pick and rolls, which has been a staple in their offense over the past few seasons.
Watch for Phoenix to run a number of Spain P&Rs against Denver, which could pull Jokic away from the basket pic.twitter.com/BPWQJJnECv— Bill Huan (@bill_huan) April 28, 2023
Here, Ayton set the initial screen with Booker setting another one on his man (Lopez), giving Ayton an open roll to the basket and an easy finish. It’s an incredibly hard scheme to defend given the amount of players involved, but there are certain ways of creating advantages for the defense.
One such solution was just used by the Clippers in round 1. Ty Lue decided to start Kawhi on Ayton to both protect Zubac from getting exposed in the pick-and-roll and also ensure that L.A. still had a big man protecting the rim even when Phoenix’s own center was playing a lot higher up.
Denver, though, will have a harder time pulling off similar schemes since they don’t have as many switchable players. Aaron Gordon will likely get the initial assignment on KD while KCP guards Booker, but other than those two, none of Jokic, Murray, or MPJ are versatile enough to switch and guard multiple positions.
In short, the Nuggets face the conundrum of whether they should have Jokic always defend at the level of screens and risk rim runs by Ayton, or have multiple players guard out of position and potentially concede a mismatch. Neither option is ideal, but it’s better than the alternative of dropping and giving KD and Booker good looks considering they shot 58% and 51%, respectively, from the mid-range in the regular season, and this doesn’t even account for CP and Ayton, who both shot 48% as well.
With that said, the good news for Denver is that Phoenix barely gets to the rim. Their entire offense looks like something out of the 90s: the Suns ranked dead last in the regular season with only 25.9% of their shots coming within 4 feet of the basket while attempting 40.4% of their shots from the mid-range, which was a whopping 2.9% more than second-place Atlanta.
This was the case during their 2021 second-round series, too. In the sweep, roughly 25% of Phoenix’s shots came around the basket, while 32% and 43% were from three and the mid-range, respectively. Even with largely different rosters on both sides, those numbers are eerily similar to the Suns’ shot chart from this past regular season and it should continue to be the case during their upcoming matchup.
With that in mind, the Nuggets should be comfortable with Jokic playing at the level of screens instead of dropping, and this has been their go-to strategy anyway. It will be interesting to see if Phoenix can overcome the math problem, but with Booker and KD on the roster, they’re the one team who shouldn’t care when nerds like myself try and explain the intracacies of location eFG%.
On the other hand, Denver will pose big problems for Phoenix too. In the regular season, the Nuggets ranked 6th in frequency of shots at the rim (37.1%) and second in conversion rate (70.9%). Meanwhile, the Suns were above average in both the frequency of shots conceded around the basket (32.6%, 12th) and the percentage that they let in (65.5%, 11th). However, Ayton’s 61.7% defended field goal percentage is average at best among centers, which won’t be good enough if he plays Jokic straight up.
Interestingly, there’s been a lot of discourse about how Ayton defends the Joker well one on one, but I think that’s been slightly overblown. During their 2021 series, the Nuggets still made about 63% of their shots around the rim — roughly an average rate — but that’s with Phoenix basically focusing on stopping only Jokic since Denver didn’t have any other shot creators. With Murray back now, the Suns have another player to worry about, and one who’s also in the 70th percentile in rim finishing at 66%.
Even so, Phoenix can also use KD as a rim protector, who held opponents to just 54.9% shooting around the basket (-8.7% below expected) this season. The main issue with such an approach is that it sacrifices size on the perimeter. No one else on the Suns has the length and agility to contest MPJ’s shots, and both Gordon (6’8”, 34.7%) and KCP (6’5”, 42.3%) can stroke it from deep as well.
Interestingly, Denver doesn’t actually attempt many threes due to them prioritizing shots at the rim — they were 22nd in 3-point frequency in the regular season at just 32.9%. However, the looks they do generate are great, as evidenced by them making 38.6% of all attempts (3rd). This shouldn’t be surprising given the Nuggets have the best playmaker in the world in Jokic, and the Suns will need to pay the most attention on MPJ, who shot 41.4% from deep on a ridiculous 7.3 attempts per game.
It isn’t just MPJ’s long-range shooting that makes the two-man game between him and Jokic so dangerous, though. As shown in the clip below, he can also come off screens and pull up from mid-range, and if that doesn’t work, a dump off to Jokic is another option that usually ends in a mismatch.
MPJ rises up from midrange— NBA (@NBA) April 20, 2023
Nuggets lead with 4 minutes to play on TNT.#NBAPlayoffs presented by Google Pixel pic.twitter.com/DRlGW4d9Y5
This is precisely why KD’s defensive assignment will be so crucial during the series. If he guards MPJ, his length will give the latter problems and Phoenix won’t need to worry about giving up a mismatch when Jokic gets involved in their two-man game. However, this will also leave Ayton alone on Jokic and the Suns would be sacrificing a potential secondary rim protector, which could make Phoenix’s big man BBQ chicken given the Joker’s post game and the constant cuts by Denver’s other players.
Either way, Monty Williams will have plenty of tough decisions to make to try and stop one of the league’s most potent attacks. There’s definitely no stopping Jokic and company, so Phoenix will just have to choose the best course of action from a number of unfavorable options.
The X-factor in this series will undoubtedly be MPJ, especially on defense. If he can prove to not be a liability in his own zone, this would give Michael Malone a lot more lineup flexibility and have a trickle down effect on his whole rotation.
Assuming he holds up, Denver could potentially put MPJ on Ayton and hide Jokic on Craig/Okogie, similar to what the Clippers did by starting Kawhi on Ayton. This way, the Nuggets can have more size on the floor and keep Jokic closer to the rim, and when Phoenix inevitably hunts MPJ in P&Rs, Denver could counter by pre-switching. Even if the Suns do end up with some favourable matchups against him, the offensive drop off between MPJ and the Nuggets’ bench options might be worth playing him big minutes, as long as he’s giving full effort and putting his size to use defensively.
If, however, MPJ is too much of a liability, then the Nuggets will likely rely heavily on Bruce Brown and close games with a lineup of Murray-KCP-Brown-Gordon-Jokic. Even though he’s only 6”4, Denver can still put Brown on Ayton since he’s successfully guarded much bigger players before and feel much better about having him defend Phoenix’s P&Rs.
The question then becomes whether or not Brown’s defensive versatility can make up for his offensive limitations. He shot 35.8% from deep in the regular season on 3.2 attempts per game, but a large portion of those were of the wide open variety. Phoenix would have an easier time doubling Jokic without worrying too much about Brown, which wouldn’t be the case if MPJ is on the court.
Considering everything, it ultimately comes down to whether or not MPJ’s offensive firepower can overcome his defensive shortcomings. If it can, then the Nuggets will have much more lineup flexibility, which would be a huge advantage over Phoenix’s uninspiring depth.
Before the postseason started, I picked Phoenix to come out of the West and lose in the finals. My thinking was that they have enough firepower to make it through three rounds, but I wasn’t sure if KD, CP3, and Booker would be durable enough for the entire run. Well, I’m even less sure now given their ridiculous workload, which will only increase as the playoffs go on.
The Suns’ defensive struggles in round 1 is also a concern, as their 117.6 defensive rating is dead last among every remaining playoff team and 3.6 points worse than the next team, Miami. Some of that is due to poor shooting luck, but it’s still not a good sign considering they played a Clippers team that ranked 22nd in offensive efficiency in the regular season while only getting two games out of Kawhi.
If it seems like I’m leaning towards picking Denver, it’s because I am. The Nuggets have more continuity, better depth, and home court advantage, especially with their altitude. That doesn’t mean this will be a quick series, though, as Denver’s P&R defense against Phoenix’s mid-range maestros will likely be the greatest deciding factor in the series.
Considering everything, I’m going with Denver in 7. GUARANTEED!!!
And hey, you can definitely trust me since I picked the Bucks to win the championship.
This week, please check out Jacob’s article that covers everything you need to know about the draft lottery! After a season of tanking, the Spurs’ patience can finally be rewarded if they land one of the first picks in a top-heavy draft.
As always, thanks for reading!
All stats courtesy of Cleaning the Glass and NBA Stats.