9:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Suns -6, Over/Under: 222
The NBA playoffs rage on as the (Three Seed) Denver Nuggets look to square things away before the series shifts towards the rocky mountains, as the (Two Seed) Phoenix Suns aim to take a commanding 2-0 lead in Game Two of the Western Conference Semifinals from Phoenix Suns Arena, in Phoenix, Arizona. For the third consecutive season, the Nuggets (47-25, 3rd in Western Conference) find themselves in the second round of the Playoffs where they look to make a similar lengthy trek. Last Fall, Denver was a surprise participant in the Western Conference Finals following their shocking rally against the Los Angeles Clippers, before finally falling to the (eventual NBA Champion) Lakers in five games. If that showing taught us anything, it’s that this group is nothing if not resilient, which is a trait that has once again come to the forefront during the 2020-2021 campaign. Though they got off to a bit of a middling start (just 18-15 heading into the month of March), they really kicked things into high gear from that point on, amassing a stellar 29-10 record over the final two and a half months in which they averaged 114.7 points on 48.7% shooting from the field, including 36.7% from beyond the arc, along with dishing out a healthy 27.2 assists in comparison to committing just 12.8 turnovers. During that period there were some huge gains and losses, with the addition of (2014 No. 4 Overall Pick) Aaron Gordon (10.2 PTS, 50.0% FG, 26.6% 3FG, 4.7 REB, 2.2 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.6 BLK, 14.1 PER) in a trade with the Orlando Magic shortly before the Trade Deadline looking like the missing piece within a rotation yearning for some versatility and athleticism at Forward. Gordon, who in many circles around the league was branded a bust during his tenure in Central Florida, immediately jumpstarted Denver’s surge over the second half of the season, with his new side winning seventeen of their first twenty-one outings after his arrival. The 25-year old has already proved his value in the Playoffs, in which he’s averaged 12.5 points on 45.0% shooting, including a 9-of-15 from three (60.0%), including a MAJOR triple in the Nuggets’ clinching Game Six victory over the Portland Trail Blazers in the First Round. Flourishing within a different culture, Gordon’s presence has helped compensate for the untimely loss of (emerging sharpshooter) Jamal Murray (21.2 PTS, 47.7% FG, 40.8% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 4.8 AST, 1.3 STL, 18.3 PER) to a torn ACL in mid-April. Murray had been averaging career-highs in a slew of categories, including points (21.2), field goal percentage (47.7%), three-point percentage (40.8%), two-point percentage (52.3%), and steals (1.3), and needless to say, this is a loss that will not only effect his team during this Playoff run but also next season as he works through his rehab. Thankfully, (Head Coach) Mike Malone has had the services of newly crowned 2020-2021 MVP, Nikola Jokic (26.4 PTS, 56.6% FG, 38.8% 3FG, 10.8 REB, 8.3 AST, 1.3 STL, 0.7 BLK, 31.3 PER), to lean on, with the towering Serbian Center enjoying the greatest form of his young career. Arguably the most unique talent in the National Basketball Association, the 25-year old is literally the only player in the league today to lead his side in scoring (26.4), field goal percentage (56.6%), rebounds (10.8), assists (8.3), steals (1.3), and PER (31.3). The fact that he was able to not only keep Denver afloat following Murray’s injury, but propel them to a 13-5 record without him and clinching the Third Seed in the process should be the figurative icing on the cake for his MVP candidacy. As expected, Jokic was instrumental in the previous series against the Blazers, averaging 33.0 points on 52.8% shooting, including 15-of-35 from downtown (42.9%), along with 10.5 rebounds, and 4.5 assists over the course of the six games. They’ll need his playmaking nous more than ever in this matchup with the Suns, who present a very different kind of challenge; though Denver won the season series 2-1, all three meetings came within the month of January before both sides went on to experience significant growth, with the overall series decided by just fifteen points, and the latter two encounters needing a total of three overtimes to decide a victor. With that said, they’re Game One, a 122-105 rout courtesy of Phoenix, wasn’t as close any of these previous matchups, and Malone will imploring a more organized and concerted effort on the defensive end in tonight’s contest; the Nuggets allowed their opponent to shoot a blistering 54.1% from the field in Monday Night’s romp, including an outrageous 64.1% during the Second Half in which they were outscored 65-47. Jokic did what he could, totaling twenty-two points though was fairly limited in influencing the rest of the affair, with just three assists and four turnovers while shooting a middling 10-of-23 from the floor. He also didn’t attempt a single free-throw on the night, with the visitors going 5-of-6 as a team (83.3%), which simply isn’t going to get it done at this stage of the Playoffs. Look for a more aggressive approach from Denver in Game Two, with Jokic looking to get the supporting cast into a rhythm, for without Murray to alleviate the playmaking burden, they’ll need his skillset more than ever if they wish to stay in this series.
Meanwhile, if they haven’t made it abundantly clear yet, the Suns (51-21, 2nd in Western Conference) are far from content with simply returning to the Playoffs for the first time in eleven years, for ladies and gentlemen they mean BUSINESS. Despite putting over a decade of ineptitude behind them, Phoenix entered the postseason as a clear underdog in the first nd matchup against the defending champion, Lakers, marking the first time that a Seven Seed was ever favored over a Two. This projection was only reinforced when (All-NBA Point Guard) Chris Paul (16.4 PTS, 49.9% FG, 39.5% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 8.9 AST, 1.4 STL, 21.4 PER) suffered a bruised shoulder in Game One after colliding with a teammate, limiting his playing time and effectiveness for the rest of the series. Los Angeles would in turn take advantage of this turn of events, turning the tables to take a 2-1 lead after three games with an opportunity to make it 3-1 heading back to Phoenix. However, that would be where everything changed. As the Lakers dealt with their own injury issues, (Head Coach) Monty Williams’ charges erupted over the course of Games Four and Six, outscoring them by an average margin of 17.0 points per game on 46.4% shooting from the field, including a scintillating 37.3% from beyond the arc, while dishing out a healthy 25.7 assists in comparison to committing a scant 8.7 turnovers. With Paul finding ways to play through his ailing shoulder, the rest of the rotation stepped up in a MAJOR way, starting with (emerging sharpshooter) Devin Booker (25.6 PTS, 48.4% FG, 34.0% 3FG, 4.2 REB, 4.3 AST, 0.8 STL, 19.2 PER), who spent the majority of the series announcing his arrival to the rest of the Association; the 24-year old absolutely torched Los Angeles to the tune of 29.7 points on 48.8% shooting, including 42.9% from downtown, highlighted by a virtuoso performance in Game Six in which he poured in forty-seven points on a ridiculous 16-of-22 shooting (68.2%), thirty-three of which came in the First Half where the visitors led by as many as twenty-nine points. Furthermore, (third-year Center) DeAndre Ayton (14.4 PTS, 62.6% FG, 10.5 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.6 STL, 1.2 BLK, 20.3 PER) also managed to hold his own and then some against the Lakers bigs, scoring over twenty points in each of the first three games of the series on an efficient 80.9% shooting overall, all the while playing inspired defense against the likes of Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, etc. Williams also received strong performances from other members of the supporting cast, including (the unheralded) Cameron Payne (8.4 PTS, 48.4% FG, 44.0% 3FG, 2.4 REB, 3.6 AST, 0.6 STL, 17.4 PER), who was excellent in place of an injured Paul, and (journeyman Forward) Jae Crowder (10.1 PTS, 40.4% FG, 38.9% 3FG, 4.7 REB, 2.1 AST, 0.8 STL, 11.8 PER), who sank 6-of-9 threes (66.7%) in Game Six en route to eight points all the while providing some solid defensive minutes on LeBron James. Now with that valuable experience under their collective belt, the Suns look far from finished as they really took it to the Nuggets in Game One of the Western Conference Semifinals, in which their second half surge granted them an early lead in the series. Though it’s difficult to imagine in hindsight, Denver actually led by as many as ten points in the First Half, shooting 53.2% from the field, assisting on seventeen of their twenty-five field goals, while committing just six turnovers. However, the deficit was only one point for the hosts, who went on quite the tear following intermission, outscoring the visitors by eighteen points over the final two periods, highlighted by a commanding 34-9 run which swung the momentum firmly towards Phoenix. In a supremely balanced effort, four different players finished with twenty or more points for the home side, with Paul scoring sixteen of his twenty-one points in the Second Half, as the 36-year old looked more comfortable with his nagging shoulder. The aforementioned tandem of Booker and Ayton scored twenty-one and twenty respectively, with the former adding eight assists while the latter chipped in with ten boards. The former No. One Overall Pick was instrumental in slowing down Jokic, keeping him off the charity stripe and from influencing the affair in the plethora of ways that we’ve grown accustomed to witnessing. With that said, arguably the most notable performance came from (young 3 & D specialist) Mikal Bridges (13.5 PTS, 54.3% FG, 42.5% 3FG, 4.3 REB, 2.1 AST, 1.1 STL, 0.9 BLK, 16.4 PER), who dropped a team-high twenty-three points on 8-of-12 shooting (66.7%), including 4-of-8 from the perimeter (50.0%), along with five rebounds and assists apiece. With Denver’s backcourt depth decimated due to Murray’s absence, look for Phoenix to continue to press Jokic to give the ball up to his teammates in an effort to make them hit big shots, which they were unable to do on Monday Night.