After fighting through various levels of adversity in the first round, the Suns and Nuggets are set to face off tonight in Game One of their second-round series.
The Nuggets were considered strong challengers to come out of the Western Conference throughout the season, and especially following the trade for versatile defensive forward Aaron Gordon, but those hopes were dealt a crushing blow when Jamal Murray tore his ACL in April. Murray led the team in scoring, assists, and three-pointers made during Denver’s run to the Western Finals in last year’s Bubble playoffs, and without him, the Nuggets’ odds to win the NBA championship have dropped to the lowest of any team left in the playoffs.
The Suns arrival to the Western Conference Semifinals, meanwhile, has been more unexpected. While their 8-0 run at Walt Disney World last summer hinted that they were ready to start competing at a higher level, this is still the team’s first playoff appearance in 11 years. The last time Phoenix hosted a second round playoff game, their team was geared around the high-octane attack of Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire.
Now, the game plan involves surrounding star shooting guard Devin Booker with smart, physical defenders who can space the floor around him, such as Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, Jae Crowder, and former Nugget Torrey Craig, as well as the two-man game of pick-and-roll maestro Chris Paul and up-and-coming third-year center Deandre Ayton.
How Ayton holds up defensively against MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic will be crucial to defining how Phoenix fares in this series. Ayton defended Jokic remarkably well for such a young player during the regular season, but Jokic is almost impossible to stop when he gets rolling, and the Suns have no true backup center to throw at him should Ayton get in foul trouble.
On the other end, injuries forced the Nuggets to start Facundo Campazzo and Austin Rivers during the first round, which presents issues against a player of Booker’s caliber. If the Nuggets keep the same starting lineup, that could mean major minutes with Gordon as the primary defender on Booker, as he was against Damian Lillard in round one.
One other key factor for the Nuggets will be the play of Michael Porter Jr. Porter was the team’s second highest scorer in the first round, and if the Nuggets want to get back to the Western Conference Finals, they’re going to need him to take on an even bigger scoring role against the Suns, who have more defenders to try on the prolific-scoring second year forward than the Trail Blazers did.
We want to know what you think. Are you picking the Suns or the Nuggets to advance to the Western Conference Finals? How many games do you think the series will go?
Vote in our poll, then head to the comment section below to share your thoughts!
Trade Rumors app users, click here to vote.