The Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets had the same start to their playoff campaigns, but will now clash in what will be a classic conference semi-final series. The Suns have undoubtedly been the NBA’s surprise packet this season, not only making the playoffs for the first time in over a decade but also finishing second in the tightly contested Western Conference. They then kept the trend going, getting the better of the Los Angeles Lakers 4-2 in the first round.
While second beating seventh wouldn’t ordinarily be considered an upset, it was this time given the quality of the Lakers roster, and the fact superstar LeBron James had never been knocked out of the first round of the playoffs. The Suns, led by Chris Paul, refused to take a backward step though, their defence first getting them back from 2-1 down, before it was an offence that sealed the deal in Game 6.
Denver had far more popularity with punters heading into their first-round contest with the Portland Trail Blazers, but almost made a meal of it before winning Game 5 in overtime and Game 6 by double digits. As mentioned, Paul was the leader for Phoenix all season, and did the job again in the first round, putting up a tick over seven assists per game. It led to Devin Booker going to another level in shooting the ball, putting up a tick under 30 points per game. DeAndre Ayton, Cameron Payne and Jae Crowder all had fantastic output shooting during the first round, but it’s clear Booker is the main man. If he doesn’t fire, it’s doubtful Phoenix can get the job done.
In saying that, Denver also rely heavily on Nikola Jokic, with the shooting guard putting up almost 30 points per game against Portland in the first round. He had ample support around him but, like Phoenix, the Nuggets won’t perform unless Jokic puts up points. This battle between Booker and Jokic could determine the series, given the respective influence they have over their teams.
Denver had major issues defensively in the first round, failing to slow down Portland’s key man Damian Lillard. While they did enough to win the series, they must find ways to tighten their defensive effort. Otherwise, Paul’s efficient floor spacing and ball movement, combined with efficient shooting from Phoenix’s main men, will be too much for the Nuggets to overcome. All up though, both teams finished right next to each other in terms of points per game during the regular season. In what is likely to be an incredibly close series, the hustle plays, extra possessions and turnovers could well determine the results.
While Denver has a slight edge in rebounds, Phoenix has the advantage when it comes to turnovers per game, almost one ahead. Given the defensive intensity on display in this series, those numbers could be amplified – ball control will mean everything. Add that to the fact Paul and Mikal Bridges average over a steal per game for the Suns, and it will go a long way to determining this series. Phoenix also has the equal-best inter-conference record in the NBA and have been exceptionally hard to beat at home, losing just nine games during the regular season.
Verdict: Everything points to be this being an instant classic series, but the edge will be with the Suns, who will use their home-court advantage to get the job done.
Phoenix in 7. $1.38 at PlayUp