Roundtable: Big questions for the Suns as they face the Nuggets in Round 2

Jun 7, 2021, 8:14 AM | Updated: 8:27 am

Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton, right, fouls Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic during the secon...

Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton, right, fouls Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The Phoenix Suns open their Western Conference Semifinals series against the Denver Nuggets on Monday at 7 p.m., so we asked our Arizona Sports hosts and editors to each lay out one big question heading into the matchup.

Catch every game of the series on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

What’s the one big question you have looking ahead to the next round as the Suns prepare to face the Nuggets?

Ron Wolfley, co-host of Doug & Wolf: My concern going into the Denver Nuggets series involves a possible letdown due to a mild case of humanity.

The Suns just walked up the steps of NBA royalty, took out their sword and slayed the metaphorical firedrake. What does one fear after looking the beast in the eyes and running it through? In days past, as I wandered a locker room, retired veterans that came back were fond of saying, “What do you do when you’ve already done what you were born to do?”

This Suns team was not assembled to just beat the Lakers, they were put together to possibly win a championship. The Suns cannot tolerate a step away from the same intensity they brought against LA. The Kingdom of Purple must identify bigger threats, ramp the intensity up, call out the guards and claim their crown – even if the dragon is dead.

Easier said than done.

John Gambadoro, co-host of Burns & Gambo: In the two overtime wins Denver had against Phoenix this season, Nikola Jokic was unstoppable. He had 31 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists in a 130-126 overtime win, then 29 points and 22 rebounds with six assists in a 120-112 double-overtime win.

The Suns may not be able to stop him but can they slow him down? Can they get him in foul trouble on the defensive end? Can they limit his impact, and how will they do it? He is capable of singlehandedly carrying Denver to victories? The Suns have to find a way to not let him beat them four times.

Dave Burns, co-host of Burns & Gambo: The easy answer is the Deandre Ayton/Nikola Jokic matchup, and it’s probably the right one. As Kellan Olson tweeted the other day, Ayton’s numbers over his last six games against Jokic aren’t just good, they’re great. Jokic will be a handful when the Nuggets have the ball, but he’s exploitable at the other end.

For me, the question will be Chris Paul and how beneficial the layoff could be for him. I suspect this injury will linger throughout the postseason, but if he’s even a little better than he was against the Lakers, I think that’s a huge series swing in favor of the Suns. One other quick question: the Suns are the favorite now. Does that change their mentality or aggression in any way? I don’t think so but it bears watching.

Vince Marotta, co-host of Bickley & Marotta: The biggest question I have in this series is: Can the Suns flip the switch offensively after a low-scoring, defensive grind against the Lakers?

The Suns won at the Lakers’ game, but that isn’t to say that Los Angeles was even worse than advertised on the offensive end in the first round. LeBron and company hit 30% from three-point range in the six games. Denver is worlds better offensively, even without Jamal Murray. While Portland has its challenges defensively, they were lit up by the Nuggets’ offensive firepower. Denver scored 120 or more points in all four of its wins and hit a ridiculous 41% from behind the arc.

The Suns’ defense was impressive against LA, but Phoenix will need to score more in this series, so Chris Paul’s shoulder will remain a question until it’s not.

Doug Franz, co-host of Doug & Wolf: I have no doubt that Booker and Paul will do extremely well against the Nuggets defense. My question is how much will they fight on defense themselves. Other than getting caught on a switch, Devin Booker and Chris Paul will not be matched straight up on Jokic, but on every possession, Jokic can embarrass you with his passing.

As great as Booker was offensively against the Lakers in the first-round, far too often Alex Caruso and other Lakers were able to cut to the basket because of a lack of focus on the Suns’ part. It was an easy way to bail out LeBron James when he was trapped or picked up his dribble. Ayton will have his hands full with the Jokic matchup. What cannot happen is allowing Jokic to make everyone else around him get into a rhythm because the Suns backcourt is sleeping on the job.

Every time Ayton is able to stop a Jokic drive or force him to pull the ball down can’t be turned into a Denver lay-up because of an open cut to the basket from the Nuggets’ backcourt. If CP3 and Booker play defense, the rest of the Suns’ frontcourt can do enough to win the series.

Kellan Olson, editor and co-host of the Empire of the Suns podcast: How does Michael Porter Jr. impact this series? I know everyone is going to, rightfully so, talk about Deandre Ayton on Nikola Jokic, so I’ll swerve with Porter.

At 6-foot-10 with one of the best-looking jumpers in basketball, Porter is one of those scorers where the defense can only do so much to deter him. He’s super long and quick and the Blazers had no answer for him in Round 1. The 22-year-old averaged 18.8 points per game on 50.7% shooting and 43.9% from three-point range in the six games against Portland.

Because of the injury to Jamal Murray, Porter is the only real source of individual offense outside of Jokic and reserve guard Monte Morris. A great series for him, or a dud, would greatly change the series.

The good news for the Suns is that they have bodies to throw at him with Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Cam Johnson and Torrey Craig. But they will all have their hands full, and unlike the Lakers, this is a Denver team that can stroke it from 3 if the Suns clog up the paint.

Yes, it’s not LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but it’s still a strong and different type of test for the Suns’ defense.

Kevin Zimmerman, editor and co-host of the Empire of the Suns podcast: Can the Suns’ backcourt prove significantly better than the Nuggets’ over a full series? That’s it. I believe Nikola Jokic will get his numbers, and the individual back-and-forth with Deandre Ayton will draw eyes. An aside: Don’t get too enamored with Ayton having a tougher time this series compared to last. The box scores for him and Jokic won’t tell the whole story about whether the likely MVP is breaking down the Suns defense readily or just getting his points.

Back to the point: Can Devin Booker, Chris Paul and even Cam Payne outplay a Denver backcourt that includes Facundo Campazzo, Austin Rivers and Monte Morris? It’s Morris who finished the Portland series with huge contributions off the bench, and he will probably close games.

Paul needs to be healthy enough to abuse the smaller Campazzo, a 30-year-old rookie who has flash but is a minus defender. I suspect Denver could hide him on someone like Mikal Bridges on the defensive end. Booker could draw Aaron Gordon defensively, but Phoenix must also make Rivers a liability, whomever he is guarding.

Tyler Drake, editor and reporter: Can the Suns continue to have a chip on their shoulder and play with an underdog mentality? The No. 7 seed Lakers, not the Suns, were the favored squad heading into their first-round meeting. It was evident the No. 2 seed Suns didn’t take too kindly to that betting line, erupting in Game 1 before eventually knocking off the defending champions.

Now, Phoenix is favored against a Nuggets team that may not have the same caliber of stars, but Denver just took down Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers in first round. It’s not the same billing as the Lakers, but Mike Malone is a solid coach who will have his team ready. The Suns need to harness some of that disrespect that was thrown their way in Round 1 and never look back. Basically, don’t get too comfortable with one series victory. It’s the playoffs!

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