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The Denver Nuggets Leave the Suns in Phoenix

Brendan Vogt Avatar
May 13, 2023

The Nuggets are going back to Denver and the Western Conference Finals


The series is over. The Denver Nuggets are the first team to advance out of the second round after sending a loud message to the Suns and the conference in Game 6. You might not fear the Denver Nuggets, but you should.

As we did in round one, let’s use this report card to grade the entire series for each player.

Nikola Jokić – A+

How will the Denver Nuggets guard the Phoenix Suns? That question was often asked after the Suns pulled the trigger on a blockbuster deal to acquire Kevin Durant. They’ll run a thousand pick-and-rolls. They’ll target Nikola Jokić and Michael Porter Jr. relentlessly. They’ll expose Denver’s precarious defense. Phoenix had the shiny exterior of a new contender and quickly leapfrogged a bonafide one in Denver. Remember, the Suns were favored heading into the series.

Of course, the pundits were asking the wrong question the entire time. How were the Suns to guard the best player in the world? They never had an answer. While Devin Booker touched God in the middle of the series, Jokić set up camp in the realm of the divine. He lived there, withstanding the onslaught and standing tall as the best player in the series when the dust settled. He was nearly flawless offensively. He played a tremendous series defensively. He did it all while emanating an eery calmness. Jokić was in control from the opening tip.

It’s onto the next mountain for the giant from Sombor. The Ayton narrative is old news. His defense looks better than ever. He’s got as much left in the tank as we’ve seen from him this late in the season. We’re watching the best player on the planet hit a level few have ever reached. Our wildest dreams and predictions for his career pale in comparison to reality. Try your best not to take it for granted. We may never see this again.

Jamal Murray – B

Murray bore the brunt of our criticism in the local media and fanbase. He took some hits in these grades as the Suns found a rhythm in the valley. When we take a step back and look at the series, it’s clear he opened strong, finished strong, and drew much attention from a thin defense. We can’t ignore the emotional elements of his performance, either. Murray’s waited a long time for a chance to prove he could impact this series, and it’s hard to deny looking at the final results.

Our expectations for Playoff Murray are likely bloated beyond rationality, and we expect a flurry of game-changing buckets. It’s easy to overlook how much Murray’s improved his ability to find Jokić in an advantageous position. Murray averaged 6.5 assists per game against the Suns—the second-highest mark of any series in his playoff career. 53.5% of Murray’s passes in these playoffs target Jokić, resulting in 40 assists. Murray may not have reached peak scoring levels, but the two-man game is back in action.

Some of the criticism was fair. The emotional element above might have influenced his nadir in the series. As Booker ascended, Murray clearly wanted to match the effort. The intended heroics backfired during the two losses in Phoenix. He adjusted, pulling back on the throttle, picking his head up, and reading the floor. He also raised his game on the defensive end, which was a huge problem in the losses.

Murray’s conditioning came under fire as Booker sprinted up and down the floor. While we waited for the Suns’ stars to tire, Murray was the first to look gassed. It’s an objective point of concern. Still, we must also acknowledge that he’s coming off a significant injury. Some of that is to be expected.

Aaron Gordon – A-

Aaron Gordon’s most important job in the playoffs is defense. We can talk about his potential impact or lack thereof offensively, but any earnest analysis of his play has to start on the defensive end. Gordon held an all-time scorer in check with a relentless effort. Durant racked up heavy minutes and attempts at a relatively old age, and fatigue clearly crept into his performance by the end of the series. But let’s make sure we give Gordon credit. He never let Durant off the hook, doing his best to make every bucket, or even attempt, a taxing effort.

Gordon passed a difficult test with flying colors in the first two rounds. This is the impact Denver’s front office envisioned when they acquired him via trade. This group looks different from the Nuggets of recent memory for several reasons. The first, of course, is health. But the roster is also better equipped to defend at a high level than ever. Gordon should get the lion’s share of credit for that newfound prowess. He’s been elite so far.

Michael Porter Jr. – B-

Porter’s shooting and offensive engagement came and went throughout the series. Such is life for a third option, waiting for your chance to make an impact, knowing any given miss could mean the faucet shuts off. Offensively, he needed to be more consistent. His shooting was suboptimal, although tenable, as Denver found other ways to score. He did show up when they needed it most in the first quarter of Game 5. He was transcendent while the offense otherwise sputtered.

It’s fair to argue that MPJ should be more involved, and I’ve tried it. Still, the first step in earning that is knocking down the existing opportunities. Porter is an elite shooter who only hit .378 of his 3s against the Suns. We should expect more of him. He expects more of himself.

What went under the radar through the inconsistency is how high he kept the floor, thanks to tenacious rebounding and defense. Chris Paul quickly learned that marooning MPJ would yield different results. Booker knew that Porter’s length made working from his beloved mid-range difficult. Even DeAndre Ayton discovered he was working with an antiquated scouting report.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – C+

Most of this series was a nightmare for KCP. He failed to slow Booker—an admittedly difficult task—and was too small to phase KD. The ball wasn’t finding him on offense, and he missed some 3s when it did. He did come up clutch in game two, to be fair.

Pope finished the round on an entirely different note. He was essential to Denver pulling away in games five and six. First, voicing his opinion in a film session that he should pressure Booker full-court. Then, turning in an A+ first quarter in the clinching win. The Nuggets punched first in Game 6, and the Suns never got off the mat. It was Kenny Pope who set the tone.

Bruce Brown – B+

Brown played an A+ series in Denver. The role players must step up at home, and he delivered off the bench in front of the Nuggets faithful. In Ball Arena, Denver got stops, and Brown attacked the rim like a man possessed. He also wrought havoc defensively, utilizing his knowledge of KD’s tendencies. He even closed a game in Porter’s stead. It was a different story on the road, which is expected. Still, as other teams around the league enjoyed signature performances from Landry Shamet and Lonnie Walker, Brown filled those shoes for the Nuggets. He was their best player off the bench.

Christian Braun – C

Braun has some stories about his rookie year as he grows older. He eventually cracked the playoff rotation of a one-seeded contender and found himself guarding the legendary Durant in the second round. He’s hardly just along for the ride as Denver seeks to make history. Offensively, we saw why Braun rests on the perimeter of the circle of trust. He’s limited and looked slightly sped up as he sought to take advantage of turnovers and transition opportunities. But it would be wrong to ignore how many opportunities he created. Braun checked many of the hustle-related boxes on his to-do list. He’s well on his way to a lengthy career as an impressive defender.

Jeff Green – C-

Green’s the weak link of an eight-man rotation, which means the vitriol is inevitable. He struggled to rebound, cramped the spacing offensively, and recorded some lowlights on defense. Still, Malone’s rotation is working, and we should acknowledge it’s happening with Green on the floor. He’s had his moments defensively. It has been challenging to watch, though.


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