Suns-Nuggets series preview, Pt. 4: Potent bench could be Denver’s edge

Apr 28, 2023, 6:09 PM

Bruce Brown #11 of the Denver Nuggets passes around Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns during th...

Bruce Brown #11 of the Denver Nuggets passes around Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns during the first half at Footprint Center on April 06, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

(Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

DENVER — This second-round series features two terrific starting lineups on the Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets. Those 10 guys are going to play a whole lot of minutes, but each team is going through its own developments of sorts with its benches.

More so, Phoenix’s inability to land on a core group just yet is an issue, while the Nuggets are locked in with a new twist that has greatly benefited them.

By the end of the first round, the Suns landed on Josh Okogie as the sixth man and Bismack Biyombo as the backup center. Everything else was still in process. Landry Shamet was the first guy in but struggled some more, albeit while Cam Payne was injured. There’s a chance Payne simply takes that spot. Damion Lee was very solid in the two road games but was still behind Shamet in the rotation for Game 5. No Terrence Ross, T.J. Warren or Ish Wainright outside of spot minutes that did not go well.

Who head coach Monty Williams settles on is a lot more important in this series. Yes, the Los Angeles Clippers had depth. But their depth had to really step up and be featured.

Denver does not need that. It has one of the best starting fives in basketball and reserves capable of swinging playoff games.

Coming into the postseason, though, the bench was a huge liability for Denver. But it may have stumbled onto its solution, and the Nuggets are in a fantastic position if their incredible improvement in Nikola Jokic-less minutes holds up.

In the regular season, Denver outscored teams by 12.5 points per 100 possessions when Jokic was on the floor, one of the top marks in the league. The net rating when he sits, however, was -10.2, an unfathomable gap of 22.7 points per 100 possessions, per NBA Stats.

In the short postseason sample size of just the 60 minutes Jokic sat, Denver’s net rating was 20.1. Even stranger, it was just 3.7 when Jokic was in. The first number is highly influenced by a few huge runs from the bench and a degree of separation, so don’t treat it like a legitimate change just yet, but it indicates Denver is onto something.

A big change for that group in the playoffs has been the implementation of veteran forward Jeff Green at the 5 in a smaller look. Denver went through offseason signing DeAndre Jordan, 2020 first-round pick Zeke Nnaji and trade deadline acquisition Thomas Bryant at backup center over the season.

Nothing quite stuck, so at least against a Minnesota Timberwolves team that plays a big group, Denver went with Green. His net rating in 113 minutes for the first round was 13.4.

While Denver only played eight guys, the three reserves are a prominent part of who they are, a key differentiator with Phoenix.

Bruce Brown (27.0 minutes per game) is a skilled guard while also being one of the league’s most unique players thanks to his screening ability and defensive versatility. Rookie Christian Braun (12.7 MPG) is someone who Williams said in the past definitely does not play like a rookie and brings a lot to the table with his quickness, shooting, defense and IQ. Throw in Green (22.5 MPG) at the 4 or the 5 coming off a great series and there are your eight guys.

“That’s the versatility that they have,” Williams said Friday of the small-ball 5 look with the bench. “The only young guy on the floor is Braun. They have so many veteran guys like Jeff that can play the 5, the 4, can switch, he communicates well on defense. And then they can bring in [Jordan] if they feel like you’re getting to the basket too much, they have a veteran guy like [Jordan] that can come in and give you rim protection and he does the same thing as far as communicating and bringing savvy to the game.”

Green shares a unique connection with Suns forward Kevin Durant, as both of them were drafted by the then-Seattle Supersonics in the 2007 NBA Draft and spent one year in the pacific northwest before the franchise moved to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder. Green spent two-and-a-half more seasons there before a surprising departure in a deadline-day deal sent him to Boston so OKC could get some size down low in Kendrick Perkins.

A player like Green is remarkable to look back on when you consider the route his role had to take. As Durant pointed out on Friday, when Green came in the league, most teams were playing two traditional bigs still. Green was part of the stretch four revolution in Oklahoma City, someone who would have been a 3 just a few years prior.

Then, another evolution happened, when a 6-foot-6 to 6-foot-10 small forward with athleticism and bulk that can shoot is suddenly an occassional small-ball five. Green has taken that all in stride, consistently making an impact across his 11 teams in 16 years

One of the teams to really deploy him a lot as a small-ball five was the Brooklyn Nets, where Green reunited with Durant for a season.

“Jeff was kind of one of the first stretch-fours and he was able to do multiple things with the ball and I think that versatility has helped him stay in the league for this long,” Durant said of Green. “Especially with the way the game is going. It’s more fast paced, more space on the floor — you need guys that are versatile like that. He’s been doing that since day one.”

In late March, Williams joked that “when God parted the red sea, I think Jeff crossed over with everybody” because of how long it has been for Green in the league.

It would explain the athleticism that Durant described as “generational.”

Green is 36 years old and still absolutely explodes with a lane to the rim.

Slight stumbles do not affect him.

Check out this offensive rebound:

And chase-down block:

Thirty-six years old!

Highlight plays are nifty and sure that physical ability is part of what makes Green who he is but it’s really the skill and smarts combined with it. He fits in well with a movement-heavy offense where staying in motion is key.

Green’s impact has been hit-or-miss with Denver this season but it sure is hitting right now.

In any series, the Suns should use Durant as their own small-ball 5 in doses to maximize his value. In this one especially, however, the matchup calls for it. Williams only turned to it in small blips against L.A. but perhaps this is the series to fully pull the trigger on it as a key part of the rotation pattern.

“It’s something that we feel like we can go to,” Williams said. “The offensive package is a little bit streamlined and focused into fewer plays but we feel like that’s a tool in the toolbox. Wish you hadn’t brought it up because I didn’t want to talk about it but it’s something that we feel like if we need to, we can go there.”

I think the Suns need it to give themselves a better chance of equalizing the trade-off against the Nuggets’ potent reserves while they are still settling in on their own bench mob. It’s the one aspect of the series that could heavily go in Denver’s favor. I’m confidently picking Suns in six while also admitting there are a handful of wild-card variables, with the benches ranked high on that list. Keep an eye on how those minutes without Jokic and Devin Booker go for both squads early in the series.

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