Suns-Nuggets series preview, Pt. 3: Can Phoenix contain Nikola Jokic?

Jun 6, 2021, 2:02 PM
Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets attempts a shot over Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns d...
Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets attempts a shot over Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns during the second half of the NBA game at Phoenix Suns Arena on January 23, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

One of the signs of a truly great NBA player is when they can step up their game in the playoffs. Most will see their numbers go down, but finding a way to maintain effectiveness and even increase it in the most important basketball of the season is an indicator of greatness.

Now in his third postseason, that’s always been the case for Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, the likely MVP.

Through 39 career playoff games, Jokic is averaging 26.0 points, 11.1 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game while shooting 51.6% from the floor.

In his MVP year, Jokic spent the first round giving the Portland Trail Blazers 33.0 points a night over six games.

They couldn’t stop him. Now the Phoenix Suns have to try.

There really is no one like the Serbian. Because of his next-level touch all over the court, including at three-point range, his ability goes well beyond being arguably the league’s best passer and a load to handle inside. That makes him a top scorer as well.

The first item to address on defending him is the matchup and if it’s suitable. That’s a big green checkmark for the Suns in the form of Deandre Ayton.

Some of Ayton’s best matchups over the course of his young career are the best the NBA has to offer, including Jokic. The two have always shared a mutual respect for each other, and the Nuggets’ lead man said it himself on Saturday that Ayton gave him the most trouble this season.

The numbers back it up, with NBA.com’s matchup tracking data showing that Jokic shot 13-of-34 (38.2%) while defended by Ayton.

The tape emphasizes that even further.

With Ayton showing in Round 1 that he can still be very impactful while playing close to 40 minutes, expect to see Suns head coach Monty Williams mirror Ayton’s minutes with Jokic as much as possible.

And that’s where Ayton needs to run the floor and be physical to wear down Jokic too. He did a great job of having a downhill mentality against Denver in the regular season.

Now, Jokic still cooked the Suns this season with his numbers, which is where the narrative of how those two match up can get kind of lost.

But a good chunk of that was when Ayton was off the floor.

And the side-by-side numbers are fairly even.

The most interesting wrinkle in watching those games back was the Suns’ willingness to switch the majority of the ball screens Jokic set.

Some of that likely had to do with trying to contain Nuggets point guard Jamal Murray, who is out for the year, but it’s something Denver forces out of teams and one of Jokic’s signatures is punishing those mismatches.

If Ayton’s success from the regular season continues, expect to see a whole lot more of Denver getting Jokic moving off the ball.

Yep, that goofy lumbering man will get those quick feet moving around screens.

Here’s more of that in the form of a sideline out of bounds play:

Even with Ayton’s terrific performances against Jokic this year, the expectation is that Jokic will still get his and be the best player on the floor. That’s what MVPs do, but having one of the best possible tools to limit him is a huge advantage for Phoenix.

And while, yes, that matchup will dictate a lot of how the series goes, it would be a disservice to not cover what Denver does well as a team.

Looking at leaguewide rankings for shooting efficiency in the regular season, the Nuggets were fifth at the rim, third in the midrange and eighth on 3s, per Cleaning the Glass. Even without Murray, a midrange maestro, they remained top-5 from that area in the games after his injury.

Denver was second in offensive rebounding percentage as well. Williams said Saturday he thought the Suns got better in that department over the course of the first round, and they’ll need to be back on their gang-rebounding A-game again.

Against Portland, Jokic (3.2 offensive rebounds per game), Aaron Gordon (2.5), JaMychal Green (1.8) and Michael Porter Jr. (1.2) caused problems. Even 5-foot-10 rookie guard Facundo Campazzo managed to snag one a game.

The Nuggets are very shorthanded in the backcourt without Murray and are still hoping to get back injured wings Will Barton and P.J. Dozier in this series. But these are two very similar teams in terms of how resilient they are. In the same way you’ve seen the Suns battle all year, expect the same from this Denver team.

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Suns-Nuggets series preview, Pt. 3: Can Phoenix contain Nikola Jokic?