EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns-Nuggets series preview, Pt. 1: Can Denver contain Devin Booker?

Jun 5, 2021, 8:09 AM | Updated: 9:08 pm

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns drives against Nikola Jokic #13 and Jamal Murray #27 of the Den...

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns drives against Nikola Jokic #13 and Jamal Murray #27 of the Denver Nuggets in the first quarter at Ball Arena on January 01, 2021 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/ Getty Images)

(Photo by Matthew Stockman/ Getty Images)

Let’s preview another series of playoff basketball, shall we?

Next up for the Phoenix Suns is the Denver Nuggets.

Before we split off into two directions, there are a few variables and unknowns to start with first.

Chris Paul’s right shoulder is at the top of the list. While it looks like he can get some midrange jumpers to fall at this stage, he’s still mostly avoiding 3s and the limitations are still there. We will check back in after Game 1 on him.

Denver’s injuries drastically change this series, and will be part of what we discuss in this initial go-through. The Nuggets lost point guard Jamal Murray for the year due to a torn ACL, haven’t had wing Will Barton (strained right hamstring) since late April and wing P.J. Dozier strained his right adductor in early May.

Barton sounds close to returning while it’s more of a wait-and-see on Dozier, and either guy would be a massive boost because of Denver’s backcourt depth.

This brings us to what we will cover here: the Nuggets’ defense and the Suns’ offense.

All three of the matchups between these two teams occurred in January. That was in the first month of the season and also before Denver shipped Gary Harris to Orlando as part of a deal to acquire Aaron Gordon. Murray was featured in those games as well, so from a film perspective, it’s a source of information that will be hit and miss.

Against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Nuggets started 5-foot-10 rookie Facundo Campazzo and 6-foot-4 signed-off-the-street-in-late-April Austin Rivers. They’ll bring off the bench the rock-solid 6-foot-2 Monte Morris and heavily feature him. But besides some loose minutes for the 6-foot-7 former Sun Shaquille Harrison and 5-foot-11 rookie Markus Howard, that’s the guard rotation.

You know in the cartoons when the thought bubble pops over the character’s head and inside the bubble is a ribeye steak?

That’s Devin Booker looking at the Nuggets’ backcourt. It’s food, and while Harris had been wildly inconsistent for the Nuggets over the years, he was always tough on Booker and they’ll dearly miss him in this series.

Maybe the mildly scrappy Rivers starts off on Booker, but the safe bet is a good helping of the 6-foot-8 Gordon, a versatile and quick-footed perimeter defender at his size.

That’s what the Nuggets did with Damian Lillard in the first round and Gordon had some good moments with the assignment.

Lillard predominantly starting on the ball played to Gordon’s strengths, and that’s where Booker could be at more of an advantage with how Suns head coach Monty Williams uses him off it.

Gordon has hardly defended Booker in the past few years, but did for a stretch of the Magic’s March 24 win over the Suns in Orlando, and in that game we saw where that off-ball movement would be wise for the Suns to use.

When Booker is running the actions, the key will be if he can get to his spots. Gordon is good at getting around screens and making up ground. In this example, Booker does, but it’s also Orlando’s not so good defense. So we’ll see.

Gordon can’t guard Booker all game, though, and that’s where we should see the implementation of more postups.

Booker has been taking lunch money from smaller guards on a consistent enough basis over the years that he’s a certified bully ball expert.

Among the 50 players in the NBA this year to attempt at least 50 shots out of postups, Booker tied with Joel Embiid for sixth in points per possession at 1.08.

Booker shot 54.5% on his looks from there.

If the Nuggets send help, the Suns’ ball rotations can take the wheel.

Given how the Nuggets defended Lillard in the playoffs and the Suns in the regular season, that brings us to the X-factor on offense for Phoenix: their ball movement.

Nikola Jokic, as the defender of the man setting the ball screens, will often show himself toward the ball-handler. It’s less of a trap and more about keeping them away from the basket. He goes all the way, and it leaves someone open.

How Phoenix and Booker can capitalize on that will be big, and that’s where you wonder if Paul’s shoulder could hurt them if he’s being treated as a non-shooting threat.

Again, we’re showing clips from a game less than 10 games into the season, but the Suns struggled with this in the first meeting.

Booker’s feel for defenses at this stage of the season is at an all-time high. He terrorized the Los Angeles Lakers with it at his disposal while seeing every kind of defense imaginable. Denver head coach Michael Malone will mix in some wrinkles too, but Booker passed that test with flying colors in Round 1.

Williams will mix in some neat tricks to exploit it as well.

It’s also something the Nuggets have generally not been great at. They are 27th in the percentage of shots they allow from the corners, an effort to compensate the league-worst 68.1% they let teams shoot at the rim, per Cleaning the Glass.

That ball movement is what the Suns do. It’s part of their identity and it’s what started to click for them in the second half of the series against the Los Angeles Lakers.

If their ball-handlers like Booker, Paul and Cam Payne can get in the key, the Suns will see tremendous returns. Keep an eye on how that ball is whizzing around Monday.

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