EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns-Nuggets Game 2 preview: Suns put Nuggets on back foot early

Jun 8, 2021, 2:41 PM
Monte Morris #11 of the Denver Nuggets puts up a shot over Devin Booker #1 and Torrey Craig #12 of ...
Monte Morris #11 of the Denver Nuggets puts up a shot over Devin Booker #1 and Torrey Craig #12 of the Phoenix Suns during the first half in Game One of the Western Conference second-round playoff series at Phoenix Suns Arena on June 07, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, who will be awarded the MVP trophy later this week in Denver, is going to be a whole lot better in Game 2. Twenty-two points on 23 shots is a solar eclipse type of rarity when it comes to his efficiency.

The Phoenix Suns have some adjustments to make of their own. They had arguably their worst defensive quarter of the playoffs in the first of Game 1. And even though it was a complete team win on offense, they’d surely like to create more looks for Devin Booker and Chris Paul. Paul scored 14 in the fourth quarter to get to 21 points, and 21 for Booker is low.

With that game-to-game variance accepted, Denver should be worried about how Game 1 went. The Suns got to play the way they like to, showed a keen understanding of how the Nuggets were going to defend and punished them for it, all while putting in more work.

The Nuggets have been great at adjustments all year and this is their biggest test of the season.

Each side of the ball presents issues:

Nuggets’ defensive tweaks

(AP Photo/Matt York)

There are complexities twisted into what the Suns gameplanned to counter the Nuggets’ scheme, but to keep it simple, Denver was committed to cutting off space for Booker, Paul and Deandre Ayton.

From this one standpoint alone, there are things to work on. Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said after the game that there were some communication breakdowns and the lack of execution on some of those possessions is clear.

You’ll see that central concept in all these examples. Jokic and the man on the ball contain the action, followed by one of the helpers coming from the corner to hold off Ayton’s rolls.

If you were wondering what the deal was with the Los Angeles Lakers paying less attention to Ayton than other teams normally were, well, that is why.

Booker and Paul are far too good of passers to not exploit that like clockwork and the Suns have too much shooting for it to be worth it.

The first stat Malone mentioned postgame was seven of the Suns’ 13 three-pointers being from the corners. That was obviously not by design, which might even be more concerning for the Nuggets given how consistently the Suns took advantage of it.

Denver’s Michael Porter Jr. has shown in his first two seasons to be a player that is still raw in a few aspects. Malone was hesitant to play him legit minutes as a rookie, but the offensive talent was so overwhelming he had to play him this year and it has paid off.

But any defense trying to execute tactics like Malone wants to is going to fall apart with one weak link, and Porter stood out like a sore thumb on a few different occasions.

The Nuggets need his offense to survive, so he’s not going anywhere. Look for the Suns to attack him even more as the series goes on.

As a team, some changes will come. Perhaps that’s one foot in the lane instead of two, a light tag on Ayton instead of completely abandoning the corner. Maybe Malone eases the pressure off the ball screens to ease the burden behind that action.

Whatever it is will be intriguing to see, because if Denver comes out with that defense again, this will be a very short series.

More Denver offense

(AP Photo/Matt York)

The most telling stat for the Nuggets on the offensive side of the ball was Jokic at three assists and four turnovers. Ayton was able to handle that matchup on his own and it limited some of Jokic’s playmaking. That’s where Denver could look to have Jokic as a ball-handler in pick-and-rolls and the primary operator on more possessions.

But that takes work, and Jokic looked spent by the mid-third quarter. The injured Jamal Murray is not on the court with him to carry some of that load.

In a perfect encapsulation of this, here is Jokic airballing a 3 while Ayton sprints down the floor.

In a cool nugget (heh) from SBNation’s Caitlin Cooper, Jokic was covering more ground on defense than he ever did in the first round.

To add one more quick point to the previous section, a good start would probably be Jokic not blitzing Booker like he’s Damian Lillard or Stephen Curry. But the Suns will keep putting Jokic through the wringer on ball screens, so Malone’s biggest challenge for Game 2 is being able to still maximize Jokic’s offensive skill set however necessary. He did not score in the fourth quarter.

The best source of offense and some optimism for the Nuggets was forward Aaron Gordon going to work in the post during cross-match situations. With the matchup dynamics at 1-4 and some switching happening on defense too, both teams will be fine with that happening.

Denver knew that and got some great results from Gordon.

Gordon (18 points) and Facundo Campazzo (14) were awesome. Monte Morris (1-for-10) and Austin Rivers (2-for-7) were not. That’s the hit-or-miss reality of searching for more offense on their roster as it stands.

But the area they can control is second-chance points, somewhere the Nuggets have usually been terrific. They averaged 13.8 (sixth leaguewide) in the regular season and a staggering 17.8 (second leaguewide) in Round 1. Denver only had eight on Monday.

The Suns’ Dario Saric and Torrey Craig did great jobs matching the physicality of the Nuggets’ strong, athletic second unit frontcourt of Paul Millsap and JaMychal Green. Denver needs to win that battle in Game 2.

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