EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns-Nuggets Game 2 preview: Phoenix will be optimistic after rough start

Apr 30, 2023, 5:00 PM | Updated: May 1, 2023, 9:05 am

Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns drives against  Kentavious Caldwell-Pope #5 and Michael Porter...

Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns drives against Kentavious Caldwell-Pope #5 and Michael Porter Jr. #1 of the Denver Nuggets in the third quarter at Ball Arena on April 29, 2023 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

DENVER — “I know that sounds simple and basic but that’s really what basketball is. So we gotta stick to that.”

That was Kevin Durant after practice on Sunday. And unsurprisingly, he is right.

The Phoenix Suns were thoroughly outmatched by the Denver Nuggets in Game 1 on Saturday. Despite that, they will go into Monday’s Game 2 with loads of optimism.

To start, Phoenix’s woes with turnovers, offensive rebounds and transition defense in the first half formed a hiking path on the comeback too steep to climb. The fundamentals, as Durant labeled them, were killers. Phoenix was actually the more effective offensive team when taking that out of the equation.

That is simple “be better” stuff that requires zero analysis. Effort. Attention to detail. Connectivity. And so on.

And to go back to the offensive success, that was against an aggressive scheme the Suns normally burn. Denver did a phenomenal job executing it. I highly recommend listening to The Dunker Spot’s Nekias Duncan break it down here.

You can see below that Nuggets center Nikola Jokic meeting a Suns ball-handler at the level of the screen forced a Denver helper, usually Michael Porter Jr., to slide over with two full feet in the paint or even further beyond.

How the Suns beat this on Saturday is terrific shot-making as opposed to ball movement. They will not win the series off just the former.

Phoenix will adjust to this considerably, hence more optimism. But who Porter is freely going away from off the ball is worth discussing.

We will get to how great Kevin Durant looked in a minute, but through one game, this series is showing the price the Suns had to pay in getting him. They gave up three two-way wings who were good to great for them and desperately need a performance of one from that fifth starter.

The help off Josh Okogie and his so-so job defending Jamal Murray makes his move back into the starting lineup already feel like a spot the Suns might want to swap again. But, again, the Suns will be optimistic with how much better they could do in defending the best player of Game 1. Head coach Monty Williams phrased it Sunday as Murray getting wherever he wanted to go and Okogie said Sunday it was all on him.

“I was the first person guarding him and I felt like I didn’t put enough pressure on him. … Watching the film, I see where I can be a little bit more aggressive,” Okogie said.

In terms of other options, Torrey Craig’s shooting has been better, he did a slightly better job on Murray and he was that good two-way wing in the first round. But the Nuggets will leave him still. Phoenix’s style has never been dictating things, so don’t expect something this direct, but even starting a lights-out shooter like Damion Lee or Terrence Ross at a detriment to the defense will be considered too.

That’s because it would help a whole lot with generating 3s. Phoenix took five in the first half. Its postseason high is 12. That has to go up and they’ve got to punish Denver’s over-helping consistently.

Speaking of that! Cam Payne is an obvious solution as well. The Nuggets’ perimeter defense in 1-on-1 situations was not great and Payne’s drive-and-kick game would both take advantage of that and create more 3s. It makes even more sense for the Suns to match Denver’s small-ball lineup with the reserves to maximize spacing. Yes, there is a defensive question mark with size. But they have to be the aggressors to get what they need in some facets. This is one of them.

It’s all about making it more natural, because just going into Monday with a mindset of taking every 3 available isn’t the way to handle it.

“We definitely can generate more 3s. I think we got some guys open at the 3-point line but we not gonna force any of that, either,” Durant said. “We gonna try to play the game.”

All of that is to say Phoenix’s efficiency had much more to do with shot-making than ball movement. Denver’s core defensive concept opens the door for lots of possessions that look like this one. The Suns barely had any like it on Saturday and need more.

That is built off quick-hitting decisions, a defining characteristic of Phoenix’s offense that was the main reason why it was such a one-sided sweep two years ago (outside of Denver’s missing personnel). By the end of Game 2, the Nuggets looked out of answers for how to execute what they wanted to defensively.

You would have never guessed that without prior knowledge after watching on Saturday, and Phoenix only having 20 assists with a low number of 3s indicated how much that process has to improve.

“I didn’t think we made the right read out of it,” Williams said. “When we played these guys before, we’ve done a much better job of making the right read. Now, they crowded the paint a little bit and then they went to some switching with their second unit. We’ve always been good with making the right read right away. I thought we were delayed and hesitant in that and I think we’ll be a lot better tomorrow.”

And being quick is all that cuts it against playoff defenses.

“Those milliseconds, that stuff matters in the NBA,” Durant said. “Those small angles close up quick.”

With the shot-making, Durant brought an expected ease.

The Los Angeles Clippers were hyper-physical with Durant in the first round, constantly getting under him with their smaller guards. He countered by getting to the foul line but he never looked as effortlessly comfortable getting to his spots like he has the last 15 years. That flow returned on Saturday, a big-time positive indicator for Phoenix across the rest of the series. Aaron Gordon didn’t really affect Durant’s airspace all that much despite the well-earned hype coming into the series as someone who matches up well.

If anyone was the point guard in the opening stages of the game, it was Durant. He brought the ball up a ton, a simple solution to getting it in his hands more.

What we’re starting to learn watching Durant every game is that he can score different types of 30. L.A. was more through taking brief openings where they were, finding easy ones and taking lots of free throws. This series should be more of best-scorer-ever supremacy.

On the other side of it, Phoenix dared Gordon to shoot jumpers and he obliged, knocking them down with confidence. Gordon’s trio of made 3-pointers nearly matched his total of four from the first round.

The Suns will surely continue to play the numbers there, as Gordon is a career 32.5% shooter from deep. On the last clip, Durant denies a post entry to Jokic. They’ll take that trade.

If those shots go in, so be it. What can’t happen is how the Suns let Bruce Brown operate pick-and-roll as a scorer. Brown is a swiss army knife, used in the past as a screening small-ball five, but he has lead guard roots and can run possessions there.

He was 7-for-11 and all of the conversions were 2s, making it just the second game of Brown’s career he’s come off the bench and had that many 2s, per Stathead. And it’s only seven other games with six two-pointers. That is the numbers saying Brown is not a natural scorer, let alone in the second round of the playoffs.

Lastly, Chris Paul was the one out of Phoenix’s three ball-handlers to see the typical defensive coverage the least, with Jokic playing in a drop more often. This allowed Paul to find a rhythm getting to his pull-up jumpers against a coverage he normally roasts.

If Denver continues with that, Paul has to be aggressive in seeking out the ball and his shot against it more often. And whoever it is running the action, Ayton has to set proper screens and roll with a purpose. As Duncan pointed out in just those, that didn’t happen nearly enough.

Williams was asked what goes into Ayton playing with “force,” a word Williams comes back to, and he said it comes down to running the floor, setting hard screens, diving hard and crashing the offensive glass.

“When he plays with force, everything else is… the table is set, if you will,” Williams said.

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