EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns-Nuggets preview, Pt. 3: Freeing up Kevin Durant, Denver’s largest test

Apr 28, 2023, 11:37 AM

Jeff Green #32 of the Denver Nuggets guards Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns during the game at...

Jeff Green #32 of the Denver Nuggets guards Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns during the game at Footprint Center on April 06, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns beat the Nuggets 119-115. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

(Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

The Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets enter their second-round series needing to prove something to themselves that they didn’t in the regular season. When and if they do, they are going to look like the favorites for the NBA title.

As it turns out, those items mirror each other. Whichever team answers its biggest question mark is going to win it.

What are those priority items?

We don’t know yet if Phoenix is capable of incorporating Kevin Durant consistently enough to have its offense reach a high ceiling. We don’t know yet if Denver has a championship-caliber defense.

While both of these teams are much different personnel-wise from the second-round clash two years ago, the head coaches are the same. The Suns had a decisive edge schematically with their motion-heavy offense in a sweep. And we should start with who dominated that series because he still, on paper, will be a huge issue for Denver.

It was a Chris Paul masterclass. The intricacies of his brilliance when it comes to how he sees the floor, reads it and manipulates from there were on full display. Jae Crowder said at the time that Denver threw the book at Paul across a handful of defensive schemes and tweaks through three games.

“He’s doing a good job of, just, when he’s not even scoring he’s just affecting the game by making the right play,” Crowder said in June 2021. “He’s making the right play each and every time. When you look at his assist-to-turnover ratio, it speaks for itself.”

Paul in those four games had 41 assists and five turnovers, shot 62.7% from the field and was a perfect 22-for-22 at the foul line. The Nuggets’ more formidable starting lineup this season still does not have an ideal option to defend him. The two first names worth shouting out are going to be busy.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will assuredly take Devin Booker, who he battled with well for the Los Angeles Lakers two postseasons ago. Aaron Gordon will spend time on Booker, too, but he’s got Durant to worry about. (This series, by the way, is a gigantic one for Gordon. Denver acquired him in 2021 exactly for matchups like Durant, to make him uncomfortable on both ends with his athleticism and energy as a big, strong wing. Gordon had a case for an All-Star spot but his numbers faded after the break.)

That leaves Michael Porter Jr. or Jamal Murray to watch Paul. Crowder taught us last playoffs that Phoenix calls a defensive weak link on the other team the “pigeon,” the defender they’ll go after as much as possible. And Porter was the pigeon of all pigeons in the 2021 series. Paul, in particular, mercilessly hunted him.

Porter has not made significant enough strides since and the Suns’ sights will be firmly on him again. Even drawing the easiest assignment of the fifth starter does not mean Phoenix will let him just stand around.

Murray probably gets the first crack at Paul, and he will most likely require assistance. Denver often has Nikola Jokic come high on ball screens and it helps over on the backend to supplant that.

Two years ago, Paul mentally had those help defenders in a full nelson, and it was all at the expense of Jokic working harder through tons of actions.

Denver pivoted to more of a drop on Paul and he roasted that as well.

This will be the base of what Phoenix wants to accomplish. Paul with the ball is when Phoenix’s offensive motion is the healthiest, and if it forces Denver to shift and recover, an average-ish defense will be pushed to its limits. And if Paul is still capable of activating puppetmaster mode, everything else for Booker and Durant becomes exponentially easier — it also gets Deandre Ayton more involved offensively.

We’ll see if Paul still has that in him, and Phoenix has to extract some of that value out of him because he will be Denver’s pigeon on the other end.

Elsewhere, the Suns will be doing the Nuggets a huge favor if they have Durant featured in actions as much as they did in the first round. Durant spent too many portions of games against the Los Angeles Clippers off the ball as a spacer. He wasn’t used enough as a screener or a decoy within the movement nearly enough. The late-season adjustment of that is unsurprisingly proving to be difficult.

When Phoenix was falling apart at the seams during Los Angeles’ 15-2 run in the fourth quarter of Game 5 on Tuesday, Durant spent seven straight possessions out of the play. Booker was in the middle of an absolute heater, and Phoenix was OK with playing 4-on-4, knowing Durant’s defender was never leaving him. The problem there is the Suns didn’t even present the threat of Kevin Freaking Durant to Los Angeles, allowing the Clippers to not have to worry about Kevin Freaking Durant.

Phoenix will still see some positives in doing that again. Gordon is Denver’s best starting defender, and if he’s face-guarding Durant 30 feet away at the hashmark, that leaves the Suns open to attacking Jokic, Murray and Porter in those 4-on-4 scenarios. But Denver will mix in much more capable perimeter defenders off the bench like Bruce Brown and Christian Braun, who we will cover more in our final preview.

There’s an argument to be made that the Clippers were the best first-round opponent possible for Phoenix, not because of how likely it was to beat them but given their level of defensive versatility through a handful of concepts and a ton of physicality.

“I think that was a really good first-round matchup for us,” Booker said Thursday. “I think with their perimeter defense, the different defenses that they threw and the different matchups that they threw, I think [they] showed us everything that we can probably see from here on out in one series.”

“I hope it sped up our growth in a great way,” Suns head coach Monty Williams added “Just because in one series I think we saw just about every defense imaginable. Zone, switching, small-ball, putting a bigger guy on a smaller guy, smaller guy on a bigger guy, traps — those kinds of things allow for your team to grow and you go back to look at the film and you see certain things you can do better. So I think that stuff helps you.”

The physicality from the Clippers’ smaller guards was especially strong on Durant. Denver will see the tape and try to replicate it, but the execution and mentality combination from L.A. was sensational. It’s too optimistic to think that’ll be simple enough for the Nuggets to do themselves, and Durant is going to already feel much freer because of that.

With that in mind, I’m expecting him to have a monster series. If he can average 28 a game on 52% shooting like he did against the Clippers when the eye test told you he wasn’t featured in the heartbeat of the game all that much, imagine what the numbers will be when he is.

Ultimately, if the Suns’ offense is getting enough out of Durant and Paul, it will be similar to 2021 and just too much for Denver to deal with. But if stagnation rears its ugly head again, signaling to Booker that his heroics are required again, the Nuggets will use that to find their defensive shape. Paul previously had them so dizzy on the ropes they weren’t afforded the chance to.

Phoenix cannot provide that, or it will be in serious trouble.

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