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2023 Western Conference Second-Round Preview: Phoenix Suns v. Denver Nuggets

Nuggets Suns
(Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

2023 Western Conference Second-Round Preview: Phoenix Suns v. Denver Nuggets

In a rematch from the 2021 West semifinals, the No. 1-seeded Denver Nuggets and the No. 4 Phoenix Suns square off yet again in the second round, this time in the 2022-23 NBA Playoffs. Let’s hop right into this preview!

GAMEDATEMATCHUPTIMETV
Game 1Saturday, April 29Phoenix @ Denver8:30 p.m. ETTNT
Game 2Monday, May 1Phoenix @ Denver10:00 p.m. ETTNT
Game 3Friday, May 5Denver @ Phoenix10:00 p.m. ETESPN
Game 4Sunday, May 7Denver @ Phoenix8:00 p.m. ETTNT
Game 5*Tuesday, May 9Phoenix @ DenverTBDTNT
Game 6*Thursday, May 11Denver @ PhoenixTBDESPN
Game 7*Sunday, May 14Phoenix @ DenverTBDTBD
* – if necessary

What to know about the Denver Nuggets:

Notable starters:

Rotational players:

After ending the Wolves in five, the top-seeded Nuggets currently sport the second-best NET Rating (7.7) among any playoff squad. Jamal Murray looked like he did in the bubble, averaging 27.2 points and 6.4 assists, shooting 47.1 percent from the floor, 42.9 percent from deep and 90.9 percent from the free-throw line. Nikola Jokic posted 26.2 points, 12.4 rebounds and 9.0 assists, including a dominant 36-15-9-2-1 stat line across the final two games. The Nuggets had six double-figure scorers and notable contributions from Green and Braun, a rookie, off the bench in their series win over Minnesota.

What to know about the Phoenix Suns:

Notable starters:

Rotational players:

While it was a close series, for the most part, the Suns downed the hobbled Los Angeles Clippers in five games. Booker was the most dominant two-way force throughout, averaging a ridiculous 37.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 2.6 steals and one block on absurd shooting splits (60.2/46.7/85.7). That shouldn’t overshadow Durant’s production, even though his on-ball usage was lower; he averaged 28.4 points on 51.8 percent shooting and 45.8 percent from 3-point range, as well as 7.6 rebounds and 6.2 assists. The Suns, collectively, were the most efficient offense among the 16 playoff teams, averaging north of 123 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning The Glass, with a true shooting percentage of 61.4 percent (third-best).

Three things I’m looking out for:

1. How the Nuggets defend Phoenix:

While the Nuggets defended well against the Timberwolves, holding them to 110.4 points per 100 possessions (would’ve ranked No. 1 over an 82-game sample), per Cleaning The Glass. But Suns are a different animal. They have matchup mismatches everywhere because of their overwhelming skill.

Ideally, you’d have Caldwell-Pope, Gordon and Jokic on Booker, Durant and Ayton, respectively. That’s not the worst thing in the world. That slides Michael Porter Jr. onto Craig (or whomever the fifth guy is) and Murray onto Paul. You could flip that because of the size that MPJ adds at the point-of-attack, even though he’s not as good of a screen navigator as Murray.

Nevertheless, the Suns will likely abuse the pick-and-roll and try to involve Murray-MPJ-Jokic in most actions and ultimately react to how Denver 1.) Utilizes Jokic/bigs in the drop and 2.) Defends Booker and Durant on possessions where they’re not the pick-and-roll ballhandlers.

There’s going to be plenty of open looks for Durant-Booker-Paul-Ayton, who outscored the Clippers by 12.2 points per 100 possessions in the 130 minutes all four were on the floor together. Jokic was best defending at the level in the pick-and-roll, but there’s going to be plenty of strain on the back-line of Gordon, Caldwell-Pope, MPJ and others — who were hit-and-miss off-ball — if Jokic is continuously involved in those actions.

2. How will Phoenix’s bench hold up against Denver’s?

The Suns might be more top-heavy with their phenomenal foursome, but the Nuggets are deeper with Brown and Braun off the bench.

Though expect the Suns to have at least two of Durant, Booker, Paul or Ayton on the floor at all times. The Suns went with at least two of them in 235 of the 245 available minutes, outscoring the Clippers by 7.7 points per 100 possessions; when at least three were on the floor, its NET rating raised to 9.4 points per 100.

Where it gets tricky is in the frontcourt, where neither team is deep, but the Nuggets can better piece together the non-Jokic minutes with Jeff Green, while the Suns have a not-as-good-of-an-option in Biyombo. Rotations in the playoff shrink, as they should. But Denver’s altitude will also play a factor for Phoenix, who played their starters the most minutes in the opening round.

How will they hold up as the series goes on? We’ll ultimately see. If the Suns get enough from their bench outside of the fantastic four, then it should be in good shape throughout this series.

3. What do their shot diets look like?

O.K., I know a lot of this is about the Suns’ offense. But let’s point out one more thing: Their shot diets.

Off the bat, we know Phoenix doesn’t take many 3s or shots at the rim; they were last in rim frequency in the regular season and No. 18 in 3-point rate, per CTG. They also took only 27.3 percent of their attempts from deep in five games against Los Angeles, last amongst playoff squads by a considerable margin.

Across the board, Denver ranked middle of the pack in opponents’ rim, short 2, long 2 and 3-point frequency, but did a good job defending all of those areas. The one exception came at the rim, where teams shot 70.6 percent from the floor (per CTG). A portion of that is shooting luck, but over an 82-game sample, its defensive personnel (Brown, KCP, Gordon, etc.) had something to do with that.

I’ll be interested to see if Paul, Booker or Durant are able to generate more paint touches and looks at the rim in this series, or if they’ll continue to hunt mid-range shots. Or maybe a little bit of both?! They certainly have the personnel to, obviously, especially since all three are above-average-to-elite tough shot makers, but who knows what their complete shot diet looks when adjustments by both teams are eventually made.

Denver, meanwhile, didn’t take many 3s — finishing No. 22 in 3-point rate — with the majority of their shot diet coming at the rim (37.1 rim%; 6th). They were the league’s second-best team finishing at the rim — due to mainly Jokic and Aaron Gordon — while Phoenix ranked in the top half in opposing rim frequency allowed and opposing rim field goal percentage, per CTG.

The Suns don’t have much interior size to keep Jokic and Gordon out of the paint with or without the rock (on cuts, curls, etc.), consistently, so it’s going to be a crucial defensive series for Ayton, Biyombo and Durant. The Suns were good at running teams off the 3-point line to take in-between 2s, which Denver was mediocre at during the regular season. But how will this fluctuate over a seven-game sample? Time will tell.

Prediction:

Both teams have MVP candidates; both teams have multiple shot creators and subpar defensive personnel, although Durant and Booker are two very underrated defenders, given their offensive pedigrees. If any first-round opponent was going to catch the newly-constructed Suns, it could’ve been a healthy Clippers squad. But alas, we will never know if that was the case. I’ll roll with Phoenix in seven because of their playoff experience and talent discrepancy at the top, even though I’ll likely flip-flop this seven different times by the start of Game 1. This comes even a day after I picked Denver in 7 on the Daily Show. Shows where my head is, huh? Official Prediction: Suns in 7

***

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