Nuggets/Suns Round 2 predictions from the DNVR Nuggets crew.

What matchup are you most looking forward to?

Adam: Jokic vs Ayton

There’s no need to get cute with this one. There are a lot of compelling matchups including the bench units, Torrey Craig vs his old friend Michael Porter Jr. and others but the heart of this series comes down to the center. Jokic has yet to be shut down in a playoff series so the question is less about absolutes and more about degree. Can Ayton guard Jokic? He’s guarded him well in the post but can he step out and contest playoff Jokic and his hot three-point shooting? Can he chase Jokic off of screens or step out on him when he handles the ball in pick-and-rolls?

On the flip side, Jokic doesn’t need to just win this matchup, he needs to own it. Like he did with Jusuf Nurkic, Jokic needs to draw fouls, compromise defensive schemes, and score in a variety of ways. Do that, and the Nuggets have a great shot at winning this series.

Brendan: Jokić vs. Ayton

Jokić welcomed Ayton to the NBA with one of the most dominant performances I’ve ever seen. The perfect triple-double stuck in our minds, as it did for Ayton, who reflected on that game since. Ayton recently called Jokić “the No. 1 center in this league,” and Jokić recently referred to Ayton as one of the guys who give him the most trouble defensively. The admiration runs on a two-way street, a street that soon hosts a drag race. It’s Jokić – Ayton, and it’s time to find out just how much Ayton has grown. 

Harrison: Devin Booker vs. _____

Jokic vs. Ayton will grab the headlines, and deservingly so. But I’m also curious to see how much attention the Nuggets throw Devin Booker’s direction. Here’s a strategy Denver could think about implementing this series: Let Booker beat them, and don’t let Phoenix’s role players and shooters get loose. It could lead to Booker having a Damian Lillard-esque series, but also the Nuggets advancing. Austin Rivers will likely draw the Booker matchup from the jump. Aaron Gordon will likely be Denver’s closer who’s guarding Booker in the fourth quarter.

Dev: Jokic vs. Ayton

The matchup that I am most looking forward to is Nikola Jokic vs. Deandre Ayton. This is the first time that Jokic has shown respect to a young player and with it being the same position as him, that adds to the admiration. Ayton has been vocal about his respect for the soon-to-be-named MVP and and I am excited to see if Ayton steps up to the challenge and continues to play against Jokic well. Jokic also has to slow Ayton down as Ayton had solid games, averaging 22 points, 12.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game vs. Denver this season.

Eric: Ayton vs Jokic.

And specifically Ayton vs. fouling out. Jokic has shown in the past that he is able to win this battle from a mental standpoint, and I don’t expect anything different in this series. If the MVP is able to put young Deandre into bad and uncomfortable positions, it’s not a leap of faith or logic to think that the fouls will follow. Once the only player on the Suns that has any chance of corralling Jokic at all is out of the way…. Look out.

What kind of series do you think Michael Porter Jr. has?

Adam: Better than the last one

It is meaningful that Porter played his best two games towards the end of the Portland series. Perhaps there was a confidence boost that he gained from having to struggle early on that will carry over into the series with the Suns. More than anything, Porter has shown improvement through all of the adversity that he has faced in his three year since being drafted. I suspect that the version of him that we will see in the coming weeks will be the best version of him to date.

Brendan: Something Similar

Porter passed his first test and put his fingerprints on the series win in round one. That said, Phoenix is even better suited to give him fits with a platoon of stout and well-sized defenders. Jae Crowder and Mikal Bridges will mitigate whatever pressure the Gordon-Porter pairing places on defenses. They have the personnel to match up with both and to make life difficult for young Porter. He’ll have to embrace the physicality, which should draw mixed results. Ultimately, his impact will come down to his ability to knock down contested jumpers. I bet it looks a lot like the Portland series, only this time he’s better prepared mentally for what’s coming.

Harrison: Up-and-down

OK, so you get through Norman Powell who it looked like was trying to bait Michael Porter Jr. into an altercation with his physicality throughout the first round. Now, you get a tag-team duo of Mikal Bridges — one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA — and Jae Crowder in Round 2. Crowder fits the Powell mold. He’ll try and be physical with Porter, get him frustrated, and try to take him out of the game that way. Bridges will just defend and do so at an extremely high level. Porter will likely see Bridges much more than Crowder with the latter checking Aaron Gordon for large chunks of the series. But Porter broke the ice in Round 1. He got the playoff monkey off his back. He won’t wilt as easily in Round 2. I’m optimistic.

Dev: I’m buying tons of stock

One of the biggest knocks on MPJ’s game has been how he has dealt with physicality and still locking in and having big games. He delivered last series against Portland as he shook off that physicality and found a way to progress in each game. It was a big test for his maturation as a player and he passed the exam. But now it is a real test. Jae Crowder is one of the more physically dominant players in the league that will make it a point to make sure that MPJ feels him. I am sure that it is in every opposing team’s game plan to try and rattle him and the opposing team’s strategy will be centered around not allowing him to get comfortable at all.

I think that this is just another task that he will master. MPJ has answered every call and delivered and you can see the confidence growing more and more. I expect him to be his same usual self that shoots the leather off of the ball, gets to wherever it is he wants, and also elevates his game to even another level. I think that MPJ shows up big in this series and cements himself as one of the top up-and-coming players that we all expected of him.

Eric: A bounce-back performance.

MPJ had moments of brilliance surrounded by long stretches of being bullied and disappearing in the series vs the Blazers. Likely drawing a defensive assignment from Jae Crowder will present yet another physical barrier that the budding superstar needs to cross. I feel like the confidence that MPJ gained in the later games in the first-round series will allow him to play at a level that we all came to expect from him for large portions of this season.

What will the Nuggets’ best 5-man lineup be vs. the Suns?

Adam: Morris-Rivers-MPJ-Gordon-Jokic

I am tempted to slot JaMychal Green in place of Porter for defensive purposes. It is noteworthy that the Nuggets closed out the first-round series with Porter on the bench while holding the Blazers to just 14 4th quarter points. But I expect growth from Porter on the offensive end that will make up for whatever it is JMyke provides on the defensive end. Campazzo has his place in this series but Monte’s ability to score at the rim changed the series against the Blazers and will have an equal impact against Ayton as he tries to contain dribble drives and closeout on Jokic for pick-and-pops.

Brendan: Morris – Rivers – MPJ – Gordon – Jokić

I’m still in favor of starting Campazzo, but Morris has to find minutes alongside Jokić and close these games when possible. He provides a scoring threat in the pick-and-roll that Facu cannot, and that’s important for Denver’s crunch-time offense. Morris is better suited to take advantage of widened lanes as Jokić draws rim protectors out the perimeter with his 3-point shot. Rivers should stay right where he is as well, even if Will Barton eventually returns. Rivers is proving himself to be a better defender than I expected.

Harrison: Morris – Rivers – Gordon – Green – Jokic

Hear me out. This is the lineup that closed out Portland in Game 6. It was great defensively and clinched the series for Denver. In Game 6, this group played seven minutes total and the last six minutes of the fourth (from when the score was tied at 108 until the end of regulation). With that five-man-lineup on the floor in Game 6, the Nuggets outscored the Blazers 23-11 and held Portland to 5-15 shooting. I wouldn’t be surprised if Michael Malone turned to this defensive group again at some point. The offense won’t be pretty, and the Nuggets pretty much just went to the Morris-Jokic two-man game every time down. But this group could be effective in the right situation.

Dev: Denver’s five-best players?

The best 5-man lineup for the Nuggets in this series is the one that Denver went to often vs. Portland: Monte, Rivers, MPJ, AG, and Jokic. (Sorry, Facu). That is a lineup that matches up well against PHX and also plays to the Nuggets’ strengths of players that can create mismatches on both sides of the ball. You get scoring as well as defense and it also is centered around the best player in the series of Jokic who demands so much attention and can have others also play well with. I think it is great for Malone to have options that PHX has to figure out as well as counters where he can throw in Facu, Millsap and Green at spots as well.

Eric: Morris – Rivers – MPJ – Gordon – Jokic

The match-up of CP3 and Facu is the only thing that gives me pause when I consider the lineups that worked against Portland. I would love to see Morris run with the 1’s and see Facu orchestrate for the bench, something that worked brilliantly for stretches during the season.

Will Deandre Ayton slow down Nikola Jokic?

Adam: No

I wouldn’t be surprised if this series mirrors the last one with regards to Jokic. There might some games early where Phoenix feels good about the job Ayton is doing defensively but the further we get into it, the more Jokic will find something in his bottomless bag of tricks that puts Ayton in a bind. Jokic hasn’t really been slowed down in the playoffs yet. Only 10 players have averaged more points per game in their careers in the playoffs, each of them a top-tier Hall-of-Famer. Until further notice, the answer to that question will always be no.

Brendan: No

Ayton played great defense on Jokić in the regular season. He’s improving and learning quickly. Still, his task is slowing down the best basketball player on the planet in the playoffs. Good luck.

Harrison: At times

Ayton will have his moments. He did so in the regular season vs. Denver. But Jokic is too smart, too skilled, and too advanced for him over the course of a series. Getting Ayton into foul trouble will be key. After him, there’s not much left on Phoenix’s bench.

Dev: Hell no

I love the gamesmanship that Jokic has already displayed early in his career and it is something that I admire as it shows how far he has come as a player. To give Ayton the respect that he deserves, but also know that at any point you can take over and dominate him with the season on the line is another thing. I expect Jokic to do whatever it is he needs to do for the Nuggets to win and for him to continue having a historic postseason. The Suns are a team that has proven to have made immense strides and have star players to build around, but none that are of Jokic level. I do not see MVP slowing down in any capacity and believe he will continue to have monster games, starting with one of his best performances of the season in Game 1. He’ll set the tone early.

Eric: Yes

Until he is forced to leave the game, and then the flood-gates will open.

Series Prediction

Adam: Nuggets in 6

I said Nuggets in 7 last night on the podcast but I am updating my prediction to Nuggets in 6. A lot of this hinges on the health of Chris Paul who can tilt the series in Phoenix’s favor if he is fully healthy and at his best. But Jokic has now appeared in 6 NBA playoff series. Only Damian Lillard’s Blazers back in 2019 and LeBron James’ Lakers have bested him. The 2019 series took 7 games and some heroics from…Meyers Leonard…to win. Last year, two 50-point games from Donovan Mitchell weren’t enough, nor was a team with both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. This season a 55-point game from Lillard wasn’t enough.

History tells us Jokic is near impossible to beat in the playoffs, even when your stars show up. My faith in him and my faith in Michael Malone are at an all-time high.

Brendan: Nuggets in 7

I don’t blame any analyst for picking the Suns. A large part of me wants to. But I’ve covered this team for too long and doubted them too many times not to know better. They also have the best player in the series. Big Market Brendan knows what to do here.

Harrison: Nuggets in 7

Last postseason was the year of the 3-1 comeback. This playoffs will be about the Nuggets closing out series on their opponent’s homecourt.

Dev: Nuggets in 6

Eric: Nuggets in 7

This is going to be a hotly contested series, the Suns are going to win a few games in runaway fashion. But, true to form, the Nuggets will refuse to go away or BACK DOWN. In the end, the inevitability of Jokic will prove more valuable than the hot shooting of a young team who has never been quite in a position like this before.

Harrison Wind
Author

Harrison Wind is the Denver Nuggets beat reporter for DNVR Nuggets. The University of Colorado alum grew up in Boulder and has covered the Nuggets for the last three seasons. You can hear him every weekday on the DNVR Nuggets podcast.

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