EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns treating opener against Nuggets like Game 1 despite last season’s sweep

Oct 20, 2021, 12:01 PM

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker, left, goes up for a basket as Denver Nuggets forward Will Barton d...

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker, left, goes up for a basket as Denver Nuggets forward Will Barton defends in the first half of Game 4 of an NBA second-round playoff series Sunday, June 13, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

PHOENIX — The season opener for every team in the NBA isn’t one that needs a little more pizazz, any extra oomph.

But the Denver Nuggets’ this season does, so by default, so does the Phoenix Suns’, the opening night matchup for both on Wednesday in the Valley.

Denver was swept in front of their fans on their home floor in the Western Conference semifinals by Phoenix. Nuggets head coach Michael Malone was really down on his team during portions of the series, at one point saying he felt like his players quit.

That is something the Nuggets are mindful of, and if there’s any extra juice left for them to find at the start of the season, they’ll find it from that.

Nuggets wing Will Barton said the team has discussed that extra edge a little bit going into the game.

“Obviously, you lose to a team in the playoffs, get swept on your home floor and that’s your opening game — if you’re not looking forward to that then I don’t know if you’re a competitor and I’m a competitor,” Barton said Tuesday.

Suns head coach Monty Williams admitted he could see how the Nuggets’ emotions “could come into play,” but that his team isn’t looking at that.

“We’re not even focused on that,” the Suns coach said Tuesday. “It’s a new season. I can’t speak for the rest of our guys, but I know for me, they’re a good team. That’s what we’re thinking about.”

On the court, these two teams are very similar.

The Suns’ top-seven from their rotation is back, and replacing most of Torrey Craig’s and Dario Saric’s reserve minutes will be Landry Shamet and JaVale McGee.

The Nuggets are still waiting for point guard Jamal Murray to recover from a torn ACL but they’ll have guard P.J. Dozier back after he missed last year’s playoff series due to injury. He is expected to take the minutes that emergency signing Austin Rivers got, while Jeff Green is the new noteworthy addition in place of the hardly used Paul Millsap.

That makes all of the key matchups and talking points mostly the same from last postseason.

All eyes will, rightfully so, be placed on Suns center Deandre Ayton and how he does against reigning MVP Nikola Jokic.

The story of the series was Ayton being the better player, proving to be a foil to Jokic in a way we hadn’t seen since before Jokic’s rise to stardom. That’s normally how it goes for young superstars, like Giannis Antetokounmpo getting stalled out by the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals.

Think of Ayton as less of a permanent roadblock for Jokic and more of an obstacle, one Jokic surely studied more than ever before heading into Wednesday night. The Suns have to be ready for that.

On the other end of the floor, the unanswerable question for the Nuggets still exists when it comes to who will guard Devin Booker. Sometimes it was Aaron Gordon, but both Barton and Dozier were absent at times during the conference semifinals, so perhaps they’ll take some cracks at him too.

Jeff Green is the one wildcard to the showdown. He presents a new small-ball element to Denver’s second unit. He can provide some playmaking at the 4/5 spot, space out the court offensively and switch everything defensively.

Williams has always been a fan of Green, a unique player that Williams can expand upon.

“He’s versatile. He’s a guy who can play so many positions, defend a number of positions, IQ, hard worker, he can stretch the floor with his shooting, he can attack the basket, he’s always been a freak athlete,” Williams said. “When I saw that they picked him up this summer I was like, ‘Dang it.’ Because you just know how good of a player he is. And then I’m sure he’s having an impact on that culture and that locker room because he’s just been so underrated in so many ways.”

JaMychal Green is a bit undersized for a center as well, and Phoenix should go with the very large human being McGee, providing an interesting test-case early on to understand how the Suns can take advantage of having more size.

When it comes to any other new wrinkles for the Suns, keep an eye out for three-guard lineups. Shamet’s shiny new four-year extension speaks to the possibility of that, a look the Suns sparingly used last year but certainly could more this season.

All that aside, the Suns are looking at this like Game 1 on the schedule. Like Denver, they’ll use their deep pool of knowledge for what the opposition does. Outside of that, though, there is no getting happy on the farm, as Williams always says.

“The biggest advice I give to any of these guys (is) what happens in our league is what have you done for me lately,” point guard Chris Paul said after shootaround on Wednesday. “Don’t nobody give a damn about last year’s playoffs or what’s going on. You gotta do it over and over again in this league.”

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