If your entire starting five is at least a +12 or higher, then you’ll look like the Phoenix Suns did in their 122-105 Game 1 victory over the Denver Nuggets last night. And their balance is precisely why they have the edge on a shorthanded Nuggets roster.
It’s unfortunate for Denver that emerging guard Jamal Murray, who had been averaging 23.8 points, 5.2 assists, and 4.2 rebounds in his previous 26 games, tore his ACL in April. And that starting swingman Will Barton, who is a stabilizing force, is out with a hamstring injury, and backup guard PJ Dozier is out with an adductor strain — but unlike Murray, those two at least have a shot at returning in round two.
But even if they do, the Suns, unlike the Portland Trail Blazers who dropped 4-of-6 to Denver in Round 1, still have the adequate depth needed to navigate the Nuggets so long as Nikola Jokić doesn’t MVP his way through the series. Jokić had one game in the opening round where he scored less than 34 points, and of course, that was in a 20-point loss. That withstanding, he averaged 33.0 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 4.5 assists in the series with Portland, shooting 53 / 43 / 92 splits while logging 35.2 minutes per game. But last night against the Suns, Jokić was held to 22 points, nine rebounds, and three assists on 10-of-23 shooting from the floor.
The Suns won’t be as one-man-band of an offense as the Blazers resorted to with Damian Lillard at different points, which is to their advantage. Opposite of The Joker was not former teammate and current Blazers center Jusuf Nurkić, but DeAndre Ayton, who engineers the Suns’ frontline, and has emerged as the quiet key of Phoenix’s functionality despite displaying less gaudy counting stats this season. He co-starred his fellow starters, Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, and Jae Crowder, in putting forth one of the most stable outputs you could ask for from your openers, which were as follows:
- Bridges: 23 points, 5 assists, 5 rebounds, 8-12 FG, 4-8 3PT, 3-3 FT
- Paul: 21 points, 11 assists, 6 rebounds, 8-14 FG, 2-3 3PT, 3-3 FT
- Booker: 21 points, 8 assists, 4 rebounds, 8-12 FG
- Ayton: 20 points, 10 rebounds, 9-13 FG, 3-3 FT
- Crowder: 14 points, 5 rebounds, 5-13 FG, 3-9 3PT
Overall, the five combined to net 99 points on 38-of-64 shooting from the field. Comparatively, the Nuggets starters finished with 76 points on 31-of-66 shooting. The Suns also received a notable off the bench effort from Torrey Craig, whom the Milwaukee Bucks traded for cash three months ago, ending the game with nine points and eight rebounds in 17 minutes of play, including this alley-oop from Cameron Payne. Man, just listen:
The Suns likely won’t collectively shoot 54 percent from the field every night, but it does expose a defensive deficiency the Nuggets paid for against the Blazers, who had a higher-end individual scorer than anyone on Phoenix, but not much else of note away from that save obviously for CJ McCollum and Norman Powell. The Suns also have Ayton, who would be unique to everything Portland had. The Nuggets even shot well, accumulating 46 / 35 / 83 splits as a team. Though, they only had six free throws on the night, which is where the Suns drained 17-of-20.
Phoenix’s balance, along with Ayton’s activity, is the key to this series. He won the battle with Jokić in Game 1, and while that might not be a nightly occurrence, it will ease the duties of those around him however often it happens.
Jokić, the presumed MVP, isn’t expected to have underwhelming games (for his all-world standards) all series long, so we’ll have to see how the Suns adjust if/when he does go off. Paul and Booker have higher levels to get to as well, in fairness. Even so, Denver may need more than just the MVP being the MVP while accounting for all that Phoenix has on the other side. But anything resembling last night will play right into Phoenix’s hands.