EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns-Nuggets Game 3 preview: Maintaining flow without Chris Paul

May 4, 2023, 5:38 PM | Updated: 5:40 pm

Kevin Durant (35) of the Phoenix Suns saves the ball and passes to Devin Booker (1) against the Den...

Kevin Durant (35) of the Phoenix Suns saves the ball and passes to Devin Booker (1) against the Denver Nuggets during the second quarter at Ball Arena in Denver on Monday, May 1, 2023. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

(Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

PHOENIX — There are several elements to dissect after two games between the Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets.

The most recent meeting featured the Suns limiting Nuggets guard Jamal Murray to 3-of-15 shooting after he scorched them in Game 1. The tweak in the gameplan was more focused on treating Murray as the head of the snake, as opposed to Nikola Jokic, who Phoenix let beat them as a 1-on-1 scorer.

Denver modifying how it exploits that has to be atop its objectives for Friday’s Game 3. Suns head coach Monty Williams pointed out after practice on Thursday that, sure, there is a game-to-game adjustment coming there but the in-game changes are a factor, too.

The Suns’ priority will be getting a better game out of Kevin Durant after he shot 10-for-27. It was the first game of his playoff career with at least 10 misses from 3-point range, per Stathead, and Williams noted part of his contentment with the quality of shots overall applies to Durant’s 3s too.

Durant liked what the tape showed as well.

“Yeah, we got some solid looks,” Durant said. “We got some good looks. There’s sometimes we could have made some extra passes as well but that’s just a part of the game, part of watching the film going back and making adjustments. For the most part, I liked the shots we put up and hopefully we knock ’em down next time.”

It’ll be difficult to replicate that without Chris Paul, who Phoenix is reportedly planning to not have until at least Game 6. That will be our central focus.

A philosophical belief to start with is the Suns cannot go blaze-of-glory here over three games. The goal is a championship. Yes, that is not possible unless they get past Denver. But if they burn themselves out to do so, it will not have mattered all that much.

Remember, Phoenix has to win four of the next five games, not just Games 3 and 4. Paul during the Clippers series said there is required context to the high-minute totals for the Suns’ stars — their roles include enough rest for a play here or there, where 45 minutes might be as heavy on the body as it might appear. The Suns will have to try to maintain that in some ways.

Off of that, Cam Payne will shift in somewhere for his biggest role since late March. The Suns have no choice but to get their third and final ball-handler on the roster involved so Booker and Durant don’t have to do absolutely everything to create offense. And that kind of language is not fair to Payne, who has been extremely effective in the past. He’s a Suns playoff legend for his tremendous 2021 Western Conference Finals performance replacing Paul in Games 1 and 2. He’s still got that type of outing in him.

Now, will Payne start? Eh. Not sure.

For the mob of fans criticizing Williams’ rotation choices, the problem with figuring out Paul’s replacement in the starting lineup speaks to what he is trying to sift through. Phoenix’s only reliable two-way players happen to be its three other most important players outside of Paul. The offense comes and goes too much from Torrey Craig and Josh Okogie, and Okogie’s deer-in-headlights moment late in Game 2 emphasized that for him after the best offensive stretch of his career in the regular season.

Defensively, there is a justifiable worry to play Damion Lee and Terrence Ross. More on those two in a minute.

Ditto on T.J. Warren and his spacing offensively as a shooter. On offense, Ish Wainright hasn’t been trustworthy enough with his shot and the same can be said for Landry Shamet’s decision-making. As Game 2 showed, Payne’s rim pressure often comes at an erratic cost, and his size on defense presents issues.

All of these players had brief moments of impressing enough through all the injuries in the regular season to earn a crack. And with the lack of production, Williams has tried to give the majority of them chances. It was either that or continue to watch the same group fail. Either would have drawn ire.

With that in mind, spacing is going to be integral and has to be No. 1 on the checklist of requirements from the choice. Not because Paul was bringing a lot to the table there but because Booker, Durant and Payne will need as much room to maneuver as possible.

Traps are going to be even more common on Booker and Durant, so making the options more viable off the ball to punish Denver’s gambit is imperative.

This is where we get to Ross, a buyout signing who at the time felt like he was going to be the primary scorer off the bench. But Ross’ time in the rotation over a month showed how far behind he was defensively. Effort is not the issue, but Ross has a problem with making cohesive rotations, gets a step out of position too consistently and is prone to fouling.

If Ross plays, and I’m guessing he gets a shot at some point here, Denver is just going to relentlessly pick on him by targeting mismatches through ball screens.

Jamal Murray will quickly get Ross switched onto him, and it will yield very good results for the Nuggets. The fear of that is why Ross is not playing, and the same goes for Warren.

Lee proved he could hang in those situations in Game 2 through an awesome outing. The only thing missing was, well, the shooter making shots. He was 0-for-3 from deep but made a handful of energy plays, including some tip-out offensive rebounds and defensive fight that had him doing just fine on that end.

My pick for the spot is Lee, especially after how he played on Monday. But Payne and Ross each will get brought up in the coaches’ meetings. What that group cannot do is go conservative with either Craig or Shamet. It’s time to stop trying to conservatively match the opposition or stick with what has been comfortable and instead force opponents to adapt to them.

I whittle it down to Lee or Ross because Payne should come off the bench. Staggering Booker and Durant becomes even more important now. Paul would normally enter at the start of the second and fourth quarters for some extra stability. That’ll have to be Payne a few minutes earlier.

And the ultimate reason I lean that way is because Denver wouldn’t have to change up its base coverages with Payne starting. Jokic was primarily in a drop on Paul and that would be the same tactic on Payne. The main change would be preparing for Payne to zoom it up the court during transition opportunities.

While help defenders wouldn’t necessarily stay glued to Lee or Ross, it will give something for those guys to think about once a shot goes in. When those guys see the scouting report, the first bullet point is “shooter.”

It’s hard to keep track of because Booker is barely on the bench anyway, but Phoenix is actually +1 in the 35 minutes he’s rested this postseason. How does Phoenix maintain that without Paul? Can it afford to pull Durant around the three-minute mark of the first and third quarters to come back in for the Booker-less minutes?

To campaign for Ross off the bench specifically, he can slot into Booker’s off-ball actions to set up midrange pull-ups, one of Ross’ best skills and a position he is cozy in. That boost and extra option in halfcourt situations would be welcome. Here is how it has looked in Phoenix already:

Deploy the Human Torch!

That’s enough about the rotation. Phoenix has a chance regardless of the decisions there because of how fantastic of a job it did at executing the adjustments made by Williams and his crew.

One of ’em was a season-long tweak we covered less than 10 games into the season, when lead associate coach Kevin Young’s persistence with allowing a second player to crash the offensive glass to have a better chance in the possession battle paid off.

Thanks to 11 offensive rebounds, Phoenix won it in Game 2. The centers had a few but check out the likes of Craig and Lee soaring in.

That was easier to do as well due to 1) better spacing and 2) generating more 3s. The biggest challenge without Paul will be keeping that up. He was awesome about spearheading this effort.

Booker and Durant created a lot of these just off the extra attention they received. Here is a condensed version of all the misses.

The law of averages is coming, as long as Phoenix keeps getting those quality looks. And to the earlier point, the more of those that are landing in the hands of Lee and Ross, the better.

To end on how much more Denver will throw at Booker and Durant, using Durant as a screener should feature more prominently in the playbook.

Sure, this brings Aaron Gordon,arguably Denver’s best defender, into the fold to cover the action. But it also doesn’t allow the Nuggets to trap. Phoenix has hardly used it but you can see here for one 3 set up by Paul what it can do.

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