Moore’s Nuggets vs. Suns Series Preview: Why There’s Value on Betting on Nikola Jokic and Denver
Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Nikola Jokic #15 and Michael Porter Jr. #1 of the Denver Nuggets.
It is very easy to dismiss the Denver Nuggets in their second round series vs. the Phoenix Suns.
Yes, the Nuggets beat the Trail Blazers in six games, but that was the No. 6 seed, and the Suns are not the No. 6 seed. The Suns just toppled the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Defensively, the Suns and Blazers are not in the same universe, the Suns have Devin Booker and Chris Paul, and a stout veteran defensive team, while the Nuggets are still without three of their top five guards and most importantly, Jamal Murray.
Nice job by the Nuggets to cause the Blazers to completely implode but the run stops here.
I’m not betting on it.
I’m actually betting the other way. Here’s why.
A Tale of Two First Rounds
Denver faced a Portland team that gave up the 11th-worst Defensive Rating in NBA history. The Nuggets are likely to struggle in Game 1 based simply on the adjustment to a team that can actually defend at any meaningful level.
The Suns, on the other hand, faced the Lakers, but it was a much-less-mighty version of the Lakers. Phoenix absolutely deserves credit for winning that series against the defending champs even with the Anthony Davis injury.
However, the Lakers’ offense by the end was a flaming tire rolling downhill in a landfill. LeBron James clearly wasn’t 100%, Davis was something closer to 60%, and the Lakers never had any real chance to rebuild chemistry and habits.
Beating the Lakers is clearly more impressive than beating the Trail Blazers, but both teams will have adjustments to an increase in performance on either offense or defense.
After you beat the Lakers, how do you not feel like everything else is a step down? Then the Suns will have to adjust to an offensive system that is about constant movement, mechanisms, and punishing any decision the opponent makes around Nikola Jokic.
It’s not that the Nuggets, without Murray, are a better team than the Lakers (with Davis). It’s that the Nuggets present an entirely different problem for the Suns to solve. And that’s what the playoffs are, especially in the modern era: an exercise in problem solving.
The Neural Net Work
In the Malone-Jokic era, Denver has won four series despite being incredibly young with very little in the way of playoff veterans on the team. They have beaten the Spurs’ stubborn consistency, the Jazz’s proficient trigger mechanisms, the Clippers’ superstar dynamics, and the Trail Blazers’ nuclear firepower.
Their losses have come against the Trail Blazers in a Game 7 when they did not have the athleticism needed to combat CJ McCollum and didn’t have the shooting to win a Game 7, and the Lakers, a team whose raw size and physicality overwhelms their design.
What’s equally evident in their success is how they adapt in-series. They lost Game 1 and Game 3 to San Antonio; Games 2 and 3 to Portland; Games 2, 3, and 4 to the Jazz; Games 1,3 and 4 to the Clippers, and Game 1 to the Blazers.
Yet they turned all those series sharply in their favor.
Part of this is Malone, who has shown a willingness to adapt and adjust. He needed better defense on Derrick White in Round 1 in 2019 than what Murray could provide, so he switched him off.
Against the Blazers, the Nuggets found a way to attack how the Blazers attached to Jokic in pick-and-roll with Monte Morris. The Nuggets averaged 19 points per game in the first four games in pick-and-rolls involving Morris. They averaged 37 in the final two games.
The other part is Jokic, who has better feel for the game than anyone in basketball outside of LeBron James. In the 2020 playoffs, he punished the Clippers’ inability to contain in pick-and-roll with Montrezl Harrell and Ivica Zubac. Against the Blazers, he brought Jusuf Nurkic to the perimeter, ran off screens and got him moving.
The Suns are well coached and versatile, but they’re built for perimeter versatility.
Ayton’s numbers vs. Jokic are excellent from the regular season and on Saturday, Jokic said Ayton “gave (him) the most trouble” this season.
But over the course of a series, Jokic will get better vs. Ayton and Ayton will likely not get better at defending Jokic, because Jokic’s game is, in and of itself, impossible to really defend.
The Suns will try the same thing the Blazers did, playing Jokic one-on-one to try and keep him from passing. Jokic will hammer that matchup, as difficult as it may be, and very few teams are disciplined enough at the player or coach level not to adjust when a guy is just killing you.
Maybe the Suns have that kind of discipline, but even if they hang, the Nuggets will run pick-and-roll and find ways to involve others.
This is not a blind faith question. It’s that the Suns don’t have the ability to play two bigs and overwhelm the Nuggets with size like the Lakers did, and don’t have James’ singular combo of athleticism and passing.
And everything else has to do with tactical mechanisms. Or, to put it more simply, “The Nuggets do not play one-on-one. Ever.”
We talk about matchups in such binary terms when the game is not played as such.
“Who on this Denver team could possibly guard Devin Booker?”
Well, first off, Booker’s going to score. He has been unfathomably great, and did so against an absolutely elite defense in the Lakers, even with Paul hampered.
(I will note that Booker shot 39% from the field and 24% from 3 with Davis on the floor before Game 6, but that says more about Davis than Booker and there definitely isn’t a Davis on Denver.)
But Booker is unlikely to try and score on his own. Booker was 47th percentile this season in isolation scoring per possession. He averaged just three isolation possessions per game vs. the Lakers. Most of his work came in pick-and-roll.
The Nuggets do not play the same scheme most teams run in pick-and-roll. They play at the level of the screen in roughly 70% of possessions. Their objective is to get the ball out of the most dangerous player’s hands.
Booker is a phenomenal passer, and Phoenix is one of the best at reversing the ball to the other side. But any shot that isn’t from Booker is a win for Denver. The Suns were just 13th in made 3’s per 100 possessions this season and seventh in percentage — really good, but not elite.
The key will be the weakside rotations. If the Nuggets put Aaron Gordon on Booker, that removes him from being able to defend Ayton on the short roll or defending the corner 3, a sequence he was tremendous at in the Blazers series. If the Nuggets don’t put Gordon on Booker, he may simply rise and fire constantly in isolation, though again, not the most efficient ISO guy this season.
But the central point is the same on offense as it is on defense; these are not one-on-one propositions. If Ayton gives Jokic issues in the post, he’ll move off-ball on cuts like he did vs. Nurkic or stretch him to the 3-point line. Mikal Bridges is a phenomenal defender, but the Nuggets don’t put Michael Porter Jr. in isolation. They move him off screens and on cuts.
It takes a seamless, cohesive approach. The Suns’ most commonly used defensive scheme was switch; switching against Jokic is a nightmare. He either scores easily without committing offensive fouls vs. tiny guys or puts smaller wing defenders into the pick-and-roll again, making them play the role of the bigger defender.
The Suns have a better bench. The Suns have Paul, who may be 90% or 40% due to his shoulder and no one really knows. The Suns have the second, third, and sixth, seventh and eighth-best players in this series and have a player tied for fifth (Bridges with Gordon).
The Suns were one of the best teams vs. the great teams this season, had a great point differential vs. top-10 offenses and vs. top-10 point differential teams.
However, the Nuggets have the best player in the series, and a team whose entire identity is their mental toughness and ability to find solutions as a series goes on. The Suns aren’t so good or so talented as to outweigh that.
There’s value on Denver.