EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns-Nuggets preview, Pt. 2: Booker’s defense could face healthy Murray

Apr 27, 2023, 8:15 AM

Jamal Murray #27 of the Denver Nuggets dunks past the defense of Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Sun...

Jamal Murray #27 of the Denver Nuggets dunks past the defense of Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns during the second quarter at Pepsi Center on October 25, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Lizzy Barrett/Getty Images)

(Photo by Lizzy Barrett/Getty Images)

“If if was a fifth, we’d all be drunk.”

The wise words of one Devin Booker 13 months ago when Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis said the Phoenix Suns know “they got away with one” when a Lakers team with an injured Davis lost in the first round to those Suns the postseason prior.

Booker went on to say the history of basketball has taught us that those types of obstacles come up for just about every team. When a reporter cited the ones the Suns themselves faced with Chris Paul’s shoulder injury, it gave birth to one of Booker’s all-time GIFs.

Davis could have simply taken the high road to avoid public statements like that. Phoenix’s next opponent that year was already on that high road while dealing with just as much injury adversity.

The Denver Nuggets were swept two years ago but did not have star guard Jamal Murray. Prior to his ACL tear, Denver became a trendy Finals pick. In a wide-open West the Suns would eventually win, the Nuggets went for it at the trade deadline by acquiring Aaron Gordon and were world-beaters for his first two weeks before Murray’s injury.

While both teams are much different, no more ifs.

Denver, which will host Phoenix in Game 1 of the second-round series on Saturday, is the best Western Conference team Phoenix has played in the postseason since its return to the playoffs those two years ago.

It was the No. 1 overall seed and absolutely crushed the league for 65 games before a fart of a 7-10 finish in the regular season. More on that later in this preview series.

Nikola Jokic won back-to-back MVPs heading into this season on a candidacy fortified by astronomical statistical campaigns, and this year’s numbers blow those out of the water. The offensive backbone of having the best playmaker in the world put Denver fifth in offensive rating, second in assist percentage and third in true shooting percentage. With Murray back, Jokic has got his running mate, and it’s also a balanced supporting cast working around the duo.

Last offseason, the Nuggets paid a hefty price in trustworthy reserve point guard Monte Morris and beloved veteran wing Will Barton to acquire two-guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. A hard-nosed perimeter defender and knockdown 3-point shooter was a square peg in a square hole to perfectly fill out the rest of the starting five alongside Murray, Michael Porter Jr., Gordon and Jokic.

Denver was remarkably efficient in the margins with two other moves. With its taxpayer mid-level exception, it snagged high-impact reserve Bruce Brown. The 21st pick in the 2022 NBA Draft netted guard Christian Braun, who is already flashing serious two-way potential.

It was important for us to establish that because it accentuates the impossible choice the Nuggets’ first-round opponent, the Minnesota Timberwolves, had to deal with when it came to defending Murray and Jokic.

With a ball screen being set just about every possession in today’s NBA, the defense has a decision on how to defend it. The defender of the ball screen, usually a center, can play in a drop. That means they’ll be anywhere from just inside the free throw line to even deeper, denying the rolling big man and ball-handler positioning inside 10 feet in order to contain the paint.

What it does, however, is let the ball-handler dribble into space if the screen is good enough. In Game 2, the Minnesota Timberwolves maintained a drop against Murray. He burned them late.

The 40 points for Murray was his latest postseason barrage as he is building up a reputation as an elite playoff performer. His debut in 2019 included clutch shot-making in a Game 7 win and two 34-point outings in the second round. The following season, Denver made the Western Conference Finals after back-to-back seven-game series. Murray in that first round across four of the seven games had 178 total points and a pair of 50 burgers. He dropped 40 in Game 7 of the second round.

So Minnesota decides, let’s not let that guy beat us!

For Game 3, the Timberwolves began mixing in coming to the level of the screen, meaning Murray is instantly denied any room once he tries to square back up to the basket off the screen.

As a basketball fan, you’ve seen this the most over the last decade against the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry. How Golden State has effectively countered it over the years is putting Draymond Green in the screening spot, allowing an awesome decision-maker and passer to dictate the 4-on-3 possession from there.

Denver gets to put Jokic there. I should add the aforementioned best playmaker in the world is also a 38% shooter from deep and a tremendously gifted scorer.

Murray adjusted well in Game 5 for his own benefit to find scoring opportunities still.

Phoenix rarely deploys more aggressive schemes like this, so the safe bet is a drop with Deandre Ayton and some occasional doubles tossed at Murray (while not coming off Jokic).

Murray at an All-NBA level makes the Nuggets capable of beating anyone. He, Porter and Gordon struggle with consistently being at their best to give Jokic the top-tier accentuating pieces he needs to win a championship. But right now, Murray is coming off 27.4 points per game and 47.1% shooting in a five-game series. For the moment, he is that guy, pal. And history tells us he will continue to be in the playoffs.

So who guards him?

As we covered for the first round, this question exists after the departure of Mikal Bridges.

Torrey Craig’s surprise switch into the starting lineup to take the Kawhi Leonard assignment led to a phenomenal four games from him before he faded a bit in Tuesday’s closeout. Josh Okogie played 33 minutes in favor of his point-of-attack defense on the guards. Perhaps Okogie slots back in to take Murray.

When it comes to just the best defender to put on Denver’s best perimeter scorer, though, the best choice right now is actually Devin Booker.

Outside of what Jimmy (Buckets) Butler just did in Miami, Booker would be the best overall player in the first round of the playoffs. He’s playing the best basketball of his life, both offensively and defensively.

Booker had stretches of the 2021 NBA Finals when he was going to war defending on the ball against Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday or Khris Middleton, and oftentimes, got the better of them. That was the best defense I’ve seen him play. Until now.

As one of Earth’s foremost experts on watching terrible 20-win basketball teams, I can confidently say it is nearly impossible to fairly assess a player’s defensive performance in those situations. Booker was developing bad habits early in his career but he was not even close to being put in a position to succeed, especially considering how much he had to do offensively at a young age.

It was only right to properly judge him once Phoenix fielded competitive teams, and what Booker started showing four years ago was a desire to get better. And he did. Quickly. He improved to a positive contributor in 2021, showing a knack for team defense, fighting over screens, closing out to contain shooters and properly contesting space in 1-on-1 situations.

All of this flowing through his insane motor during this year’s first round produced terrific defense against the Los Angeles Clippers.

His traits have grown to the point where he’s a defensive playmaker now.

The good 1-on-1 contests are turning into blocks.

His keen understanding for team defense, what the offense is trying to achieve and lighting closeouts are turning into steals.

He was already doing this in the past with weak-side rim protection and now it’s on the big stage.

That is the guy that should be defending Murray for most of the series.

But Booker played 216 of a possible 240 minutes in the five games. That was because of how he had to carry the Suns’ offense the majority of the time, a taxing role in which he was providing nonstop rim pressure on drives to the basket.

Booker (and Kevin Durant) became just the third and fourth players in the last eight postseasons to play at least 216 minutes across a five-game span in the first round, per Stathead. The other two were Dorian Finney-Smith and Pascal Siakam in 2022.

The load management era filled with scientific data through tracking systems that suggest the wear-down effect of heavy minutes has almost effectively ended players reaching the low-to-mid 40s consistently, even when the season is on the line. For reference, if we go back to the early 2010s, there are a few players every postseason who broke that 216-minute threshold in the first round. Turn back the clock five more years and it goes from a few to a handful.

But once Butler had his last hurrah for Tom Thibodeau’s Chicago Bulls gauntlet in 2015, it screeched to a halt outside of those two outliers.

That is for a reason! The Suns had theirs, too. Winning.

Defensive tracking data is wonky and certainly not a tell-all but Booker has defended 23.2 shots per game, the second-most in the playoffs. That is a number above many rim protectors and nearly five more than the next perimeter defender, per NBA Stats. He has attempted 23.6 shots per game, the third-most in the playoffs.

Booker is not going to let up. Can his shoulders support another two-way masterclass? You won’t find me doubting that man but it’ll be interesting to see if Phoenix chooses to alter his workload for long-term betterment or once again maximize its game-to-game chances at winning.

If it’s the latter, a must-see series will have another incredible individual battle.

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